“Free press under threat”: Justice AP Shah

Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, former Chief Justice of the Madras and Delhi High Courts, delivers the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture on “Free Press and the Laws of Defamation, Contempt and Sedition” at the Asian College of Journalism Convocation.


  • The media continues to act as an institution that checks and balances the other three pillars.
  • The press is a watchdog, monitoring everyone and everything else around it, and it is also a determinant of public opinion.
  • The existence of media as a free and independent institution is under threat from oppressive laws.
  • The defamation law is abused not only by powerful governments, but also the corporate moneybags, who wield immense economic and political power today.
  • Journalists who play the role of watchdogs and critics of judiciary are often accused of contempt of court.
  • The sedition law has often been used against the press because the state recognises the power of the media.

The media plays an important role in democracy, acting as a fourth pillar and a watchdog keeping an eye on the other three pillars – namely legislature, judiciary and the executive. The media also plays a critical role in shaping the public opinion, says Justice AP Shah in his address to the ACJ Class of 2017 in Chennai on May 3.

Justice Shah goes on to argue how the freedom of the press has been facing numerous constraints due to colonial  laws relating to  Defamation, Contempt and Sedition. Though these laws operate as a legal tool in the hands of the rich and powerful, often causing a chilling effect on exercising free speech, Justice Shah insists it is imperative that journalists must learn to engage with the law in order to deal with them.

Explaining a few case studies pertaining to these laws, he pointed out that the judiciary is often inclined towards upholding freedom of speech and expression, however the process itself is the punishment.


Before his elevation, Justice Shah practised in Bombay High Court for more than 17 years. He mainly appeared in civil, constitutional, service and labour matters.

Justice Shah was appointed as the Judge of Bombay High Court in 1992 and was later elevated to the office of Chief Justice Madras High Court and on transfer took over as Chief Justice, Delhi High Court on 11th May, 2008 till his retirement.

He has delivered some important judgements ranging on diverse issues such as: Application of the Right to Information Act to the office of the Chief Justice of India; Decriminalisation of homosexuality; Freedom of Speech and Expression; Environment and Ecological matters; Protection of disabled person; Laws relating to women; Contract Labour; Child Labour; Employment Rights of HIV affected persons. As a judge of the Bombay High Court and later Madras and Delhi High Courts, he had also dealt with large number of commercial cases including admiralty, company law, trademark and patent laws, arbitration, etc.

After retirement he was appointed as the Chairperson of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), a self-regulatory body appointed by Indian Broadcasting Foundation. He also headed a Committee appointed by the Ministry in Planning Commission, Government of India, on Privacy issues, which drafted a report on Privacy law in India. He headed the Twentieth Law Commission of India, from 2013 to 2015, which submitted 19 reports, including on the Arbitration and Conciliation Act; Commercial Courts; Electoral Reforms; and the Death Penalty.


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