Justice Min Bahadur Raymajhi of the Supreme Court has issued a notice of defamation to Himal Khabarpatrika for a cartoon published in the magazine. In the cartoon, the Chief Justice has been presented as a member of the Constitutional Council with his eyes blindfolded.
The notice issued by Justice Raymajhi indicates on one hand that intolerance is increasingly dominating the Supreme Court while on the other, it has triggered suspicions about personal or institutional efforts at the apex court to limit press freedom. If the Supreme Court decides in line with Justice Raymajhi's notice, in the future those who come to the apex court to defend press freedom against the executive will think twice. This is not to say the press has the authority to defame and slander the Supreme Court. But on the basis of a common pretext, the court's sword must not hang above the press freedom even for a single moment.
There are fears and suspicion the notice issued against Himal will sharpen this sword. The recent recommendation of the constitutional council, the so-called amendment or analysis and the delays by the king in making appointments to constitutional bodies are critical issues that have come to the people's notice. Since the Chief Justice is a member of the constitutional council, he is not free from criticism either. However, his decision to keep mum on grounds of his sensitive position has been respected. But, the council, both institutionally or as a group, has been criticised in editorials and stories in different newspapers and magazines. The court is possibly aware about all these expressions. Therefore, the question that rises quite naturally is why this sudden ire directed only towards Himal for its cartoon?
This is a golden opportunity for Chief Justice Upadhyay to eliminate any suspicions raised over the court-a legacy he can leave behind when he retires in a month. Almost a decade ago, the Supreme Court had ordered the week-long imprisonment of the then editor of Saptahik Bimarsha for having lampooned the then Chief Justice Biswa Nath Upadhyay as a monkey (see right). The cartoon, which was published while the court was considering the Tanakpur case, showed the monkey holding a coconut to represent the Supreme Court. If only the Chief Justice and other justices of the time, along with their comments, big hearts and pardon, had proved that the "coconut" was safe with them, the honour of the court would not have eroded.
In a democracy, prerogatives of courts or any other constitutional body are not meant for vengeance or punishment. This issue was paid special attention to when the constitutions of the United States and India were crafted. People ranging from Jefferson to Ambedkar declared a clear understanding on the matter was critical. In response to cases filed later, special justices ratified the theory. In other words, courts have set examples by accepting criticism against them as a way to establish that they exist to protect the people's rights and freedom.
The last 13 years of the judiciary in Nepal has been criticised many times, both from within and outside the bar (This is not to suggest that the judiciary before that was any better. The context today is the judiciary being unable to live up to the expectations of the people). The widespread opinion about the law is that it is expensive, corrupt and inaccessible. The selection process of justices is also controversial.
Why is a cartoon depicting a blindfolded chief justice so offensive? On the contrary, not printing such a cartoon would be a crime. Subtlety in creativity is a gradual process. The Supreme Court should not ignore the fact that cartoon journalism is developing at the same pace.