By Sydney Selvon
I am writing to express my utter shock and disappointment that our colleague Dharmanand Dhooharika has been sentenced to prison for 3 months for contempt of court.
I have great respect for the integrity of our Chief Justice Honourable Bernard Sik Yuen and that of all the other Judges of our Supreme Court and acknowledge the necessity for them to be protected by the contempt of court laws. However, having worked in larger democracies in recent years in the capacity of editor of a number of newspapers, namely in Australia and particularly in Canada (where I was the editor of three newspapers successively), allow me to state that in such countries contempt of court, and even the offence of putting into doubt the integrity of the judges, are dealt with essentially and preferably by a vigorous letter addressed to the editors of the concerned newspapers by the Bar Association, which the newspapers never fail to publish.
The same practice prevails in the United States where the American Bar Association, the powerful body representing the legal profession, steps in to defend equally vigorously what they perceive as unwarranted attacks on the integrity of the judges.
This reaction is generally deemed adequate to protect the integrity of the Court. This does not exclude, at times, reactions from judges and other members of the legal profession going to the extent of admitting that judges need to be criticized if only to be seen as accountable to the public opinion.
I will not at this stage go into the fine details of other well-known cases of such acknowledgements. I will rather focus on what is happening here in Mauritius at this moment.
It is obvious, judging from the immense reaction among the public, especially on Internet sites and social networks such as Facebook where tens of thousands of Mauritians express themselves freely each and every second of the day and night, that the sentence delivered against Editor Dharmanand Dhooharika may have a boomerang effect.
Additionally, the comments in relation to the sentencing of Dhooharika by foreign newspapers, such as the prestigious Guardian, and by various human rights organisations and those which defend the principles of press freedom and the right to criticize the powers of the State, including those in charge of the judicial system, are likely to give a bad name to our country.
The general impression seems to be that the prison sentence is too harsh a form of punishment. I do not subscribe to the radical views expressed in some quarters of public opinion with regard to other matters concerning this case. I believe strongly in the integrity of the Chief Justice and of all Judges of the Supreme Court and would have wished the punishment to be less severe.
Dharmanand has worked under me for many years at Le Mauricien and is considered an excellent reporter. I cannot, being not a professional lawyer, provide informed legal opinion as to the merits or demerits of the actual case. My personal view however is that Dharmanand is not in any way a habitual criminal to deserve the prison sentence inflicted upon him.
He may have transgressed the letter of some legislation, subject to the result of any appeal against that view of things, but I believe that he should not have been sent to prison for a term of 3 months. His case is actually unique since the time of National Independence as regards the extreme severity of the punishment for a chief editor, especially one who has been very active in reporting against true habitual criminals throughout his career.
In conclusion, I am hoping that things calm down on all sides, especially in the public opinion, and that, without in any way condoning the offence of contempt of Court or be seen to be doing so, the issue will be resolved within the least possible delay through the proper legal channels, including an appeal to the Commission on the Prerogative Mercy if necessary. In that context, I am prepared to try my best to help towards such a resolution with proper legal advice.
* Published in print edition on 28 October 2011