SC declines ECI plea to restrain media from reporting critical remarks by Madras HC

Real-time reportage of court proceedings, including the oral exchanges in courtrooms between judges and lawyers, is part of the right to freedom of speech, the Supreme Court has held in a judgment.

Also read: Cannot stop media reports on court observations, says Supreme Court

“With the advent of technology, we are seeing reporting proliferate through social media forums, which provide real-time updates to a much wider audience. This is an extension of the freedom of speech and expression that the media possesses. This constitutes a virtual extension of the open court,” a Bench led by Justices D.Y. Chandrachud observed in the judgment.

Such live reporting of court proceedings is a casuse of celebration rather than apprehension.

The court declined a plea made by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to restrain the media from reporting oral remarks made by a Division Bench of the Madras High court. The HC judges had said that poll body officials should be charged with “”urder” for allowing rallies and mass gatherings during the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. The judges had remarked that the ECI was solely responsible for the COVID-19 surge

The Chief Election Commissioner had appealed to the Supreme Court after the High Court did not restrain the media from reporting the remarks nor make any of them take back the remarks. The ECI said cases had been filed against its officials for “murder”.

‘Balancing of powers’

In the judgment, Justice Chandrachud said the case posed a delicate balancing of powers between the High Court and the ECI, which were both constitutional authorities. The case also featured prominently the power of the media to report judicial proceedings honestly and fairly in real time.

The court said that except in cases of child sexual abuse and marital issues, the phenomenon of free Press should extend to court proceedings.

Also read: CEC moves Supreme Court against Madras HC's comments

“Citizens have a right to know about what transpires in the course of judicial proceedings. The dialogue in a court indicates the manner in which a judicial proceeding is structured... Arguments addressed before the court, the response of opposing counsel and issues raised by the court are matters on which citizens have a legitimate right to be informed,” Justice Chandrachud observed.

Right of the media to report and disseminate issues and events, including court proceedings that were a part of the public domain, augmented the integrity of the judiciary.

The court referred to how the Gujarat High Court recently introduced live-streaming of its proceedings in a bid to enhance public participation in the dispensation of justice.

“In this backdrop, it would be retrograde for this court to promote the rule of law and access to justice on one hand, and shield the daily operations of the High Courts and this court from the media in all its forms, by gagging the reporting of proceedings,” Justice Chandrachud said.

The court said oral observations made during the course of the hearing did not bind the parties and did not form a part of the judgment. An exchange of views was intrinsic to the applicability of mind and the process of judging.

‘Caution needed’

On the nature of the remarks made by the Madras High Court, the Supreme Court said “a degree of caution and circumspection would have allayed the problems in the present case. All said and done, this is in the past and does not constitute a part of the record”.

Justice Chandrachud said the High Courts had constantly been in touch with ground realities and had done great work.

‘ECI’s independence’

On the other hand, the independence of the ECI was important for democracy to thrive.

The court said the remarks may have been a manifestation of anguish at the rising cases of COVID-19.

The method of the High Court was “harsh and inappropriate”, but it did not direct culpability. But it should have ensured compliance of orders. The language both by the Bench and in judgement should be sensitive to constitutional values, the court said.

“We must emphasise the need for judges to exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which may be susceptible to misinterpretation. Language, both on the Bench and in judgments, must comport with judicial propriety. Language is an important instrument of a judicial process which is sensitive to constitutional values,” Justice Chandrachud noted.

In the hearing, the ECI had complained that the High Court should not have accused another constitutional authority of “murder”.

In its petition in the Supreme Court, the Commission said the oral comments by the High Court would impact or lower the faith of the masses in the Commission and democratic process.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 3:55:09 AM |

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