Prashant Bhushan is an Indian advocate. He is a public interest lawyer who has taken up around five hundred cases in his profession and most of them are concerned with some general public issues. He was one of the members of the team of the India against Corruption (IAC) movement. In June 2020 Prashant Bhushan posted few tweets on the social media site “Twitter” which gave rise to many controversies. Later on, he was charged with the allegations of contempt of court and the most astonishing part of the case was the imposition of a fine of Rs. 1 to Prashant Bhushan. All this happened with a series of events.
Let us understand what exactly happened, what were the facts and what was held by the court in this case?
Before that, let’s have a look at provisions for contempt of court in India. Contempt of court refers to the willful disobedience of any order, decree or judgement, etc. given by the court and making bad remarks about any court that may tarnish its image. The Contempt of courts Act 1971, deals with the provisions regarding the contempt of court in India. The act divides contempt into two main types- the civil contempt of court and the criminal contempt of court. Civil contempt is a lesser serious offence and criminal contempt is a more serious offence. The person alleged of contempt may be charged with a fine or imprisonment or both of them as per the facts and circumstances of each case. The power of contempt of court has been provided to the courts with a view to ensuring proper implementation of the judgments or decrees or orders etc. passed by the court. The judiciary does not have any executive force which will make sure that the law judgment or decree passed by the court is being considered and followed by the parties. So, to create a sense of responsibility among the people this power is assigned to the courts.
FACTS OF THE CASE
Prashant Bhushan posted two major tweets on the popular social media site “Twitter” in the month of June 2020. Both of them were about the Supreme Court and its judges. These tweets were posted as follows:
June 27th, 2020 – In his tweet posted on this day, Prashant Bhushan mentioned that when historians would look back into the past six years of the Indian economy, they would mark the role played by the last four Chief Justices of India in the ruination of this democracy. The previous four Chief Justices of India have been Jagdish Singh Khehar: (January 4, 2017 – August 27, 2017); Dipak Misra (August 28, 2017 – October 2, 2018); Ranjan Gogoi (October 3, 2018 – November 17, 2019); Sharad Arvind Bobde (November 18, 2019 – April 23, 2021).
June 29th, 2020 – He posted a picture of the Chief Justice of India, Justice S.A. Bobde in which he was sitting on a Harley Davidson Motorbike. The bike was said to be borrowed from a politician. He tweeted along “CJI rides a 50-lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access Justice!.”
Later, when another advocate, Advocate Mahek Maheshwari discovered the tweets of Advocate Prashant Bhushan he filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court. Prashant Bhushan was referred to as the contemnor no. 1, alleging, that his tweets were nothing but a “cheap publicity stunt” posted with an attempt to “spread hatred in the form of the anti-India campaign”. Twitter, the social media platform was referred to as the contemnor no.2, it was alleged that Twitter did not put down the tweets of Prashant Bhushan even when they were supposed to spread hatred amongst the people. The Supreme Court observed that this contempt petition lacks prior sanction from the Attorney General of India. Therefore, the Supreme Court took Suo motu cognizance of the tweets posted by the Advocate Prashant Bhushan. Hon’ble Justices Arun Mishra, B. R Gavai, and Krishna Murari heard the case.
The judges observed that the tweets that were posted on Twitter have brought the administration of justice in question. They believed that the tweets would undermine the dignity and authority of the Supreme Court. Later on, notice was issued to both the Contemnors to file their replies. Now the main question that arose to be answered by the Supreme Court was that whether Prashant Bhushan is Guilty of Contempt for both of his tweets and whether the social media site “Twitter” shall be charged with contempt for not putting down the tweets of Prashant Bhushan?
These are the contentions that were made by both the alleged contemnors-
Contentions made by Advocate Prashant Bhushan –
- Referring to his first tweet dated 27th June 2020, he contended that he posted the tweet with the sole motive to express his frustration on the current situation where even the Supreme Court was under lockdown for around the past 3 months, due to which many serious issues were not heard. The issues regarding the Fundamental Rights of the citizens were not taken up by the court. This was acting as a hindrance in administering justice to the people.
- He also contended regarding the second tweet that he made on 29th June 2020 that his intention behind posting the photo of Justice S.A. Bobde (in which he was riding the bike) was to highlight the incongruity of the circumstances that on one hand, he was conducting the court proceedings virtually due to the fear of the deadly Corona Virus but on the other hand, he himself was stepping out, and riding a bike of worth 50 lakhs, at a public place and that too without any helmet or mask.
- He said that both of his tweets fall under the scope of his right to freedom and expression. He should not be charged with contempt of court because if it happens it would be violative of his fundamental rights under Article 19.
Contentions made by Twitter –
- Twitter is a social media site that just provides a common platform for people to interact with each other in an online mode and share their thoughts and ideas. It is just an “intermediary” defined under section 2(w) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and thus it is not the originator of the tweets in question. Twitter does not have an editorial board that controls the tweets of people and takes care of what is to be posted and whatnot. Also, after the order dated 22.07.2020 of the court, it has not only blocked access to the tweets in question but also disabled them.
Prashant Bhushan was asked to apologize for the posts that he made on the Twitter site but with these contentions, Prashant Bhushan refused to apologize for the tweets that he posted on Twitter. He said that his words fall within the domain of freedom of speech, and do not spread any hatred. He said that his intentions were bona fide. He did not post anything to spread hatred and therefore if he would apologize it would be unfair.
WHAT WAS HELD?
It was held that the facts on which both tweets were based were completely distorted. Therefore, it would amount to criminal contempt of court. The court discharged the notice issued to contemnor no. 2 (Twitter) saying that, they do not have any control over the posts of users. Also, disabling the tweets posted by Prashant Bhushan shows their bona fide intention. The court ordered Prashant Bhushan to apologize for what he has done. But he refused to do so. Later, the court declared him guilty of criminal contempt of court. He was charged with a fine of Rs. 1 and if he failed to deposit the fine, he would have to go for an imprisonment of 3 months. Also, he would not be allowed to practice in that court for the next three years. Prashant Bhushan chose the first option and deposited the fine positively before the due date. Prashant Bhushan said he would be filing a review Petition in the future for reviewing the judgment in his case because he still believed that the tweets were posted with a bona fide intention and there was nothing wrong with that.
Author’s Name: Pooja (Panjab University)