Media has the right to cover court proceedings, SC tells Election Commission

Says oral remarks of Madras high court against EC not part of judicial records

Media has the right to cover court proceedings, SC tells Election Commission

Media has the right to cover court proceedings, the bench said

New Delhi, May 6

The Supreme Court Thursday said Madras High Court’s oral observations holding the EC responsible for surge in COVID cases are not part of “official judicial record” leaving no question of expunging them and also trashed the plea that media be restrained from reporting such remarks, saying freedom of speech “extends to reporting proceedings of judicial institutions as well”.

The top court, referring to Constitutional importance of high courts and the Election Commission (EC), said it has attempted to strike a balance and emphasised that there was a “need for judges to exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which may be susceptible to misinterpretation”.

Rejecting the plea of the poll panel, a bench comprising justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said the oral remarks are not a part of official judicial record, and therefore, the question of expunging them does not arise.

The 31-page judgement said: “It is trite to say that a formal opinion of a judicial institution is reflected through its judgments and orders, and not its oral observations during the hearing. Hence...we find no substance in the prayer of the EC for restraining the media from reporting on court proceedings.

“This Court stands as a staunch proponent of the freedom of the media to report court proceedings. This we believe is integral to the freedom of speech and expression of those who speak, of those who wish to hear and to be heard and above all, in holding the judiciary accountable to the values which justify its existence as a constitutional institution”.

Justice Chandrachud, writing judgement for the bench, said the duty to preserve independence of the judiciary and to allow freedom of expression of judges in court is one end of the spectrum.

“The other end of the spectrum, which is equally important, is that the power of judges must not be unbridled and judicial restraint must be exercised, before using strong and scathing language to criticize any individual or institution,” it said.

Referring to the independence of judiciary from the executive and the legislature, the bench said it is the “cornerstone” of the republic and such independence translates to being impartial, free from bias and uninfluenced by the actions of those in power, but also recognises the freedom to judges to conduct court proceedings within the contours of the well-established principles of natural justice.

“Judges in the performance of their duty must remain faithful to the oath of the office they hold, which requires them to bear allegiance to the Constitution. An independent judiciary must also be one which is accountable to the public in its actions (and omissions),” it said.

The verdict praised the poll panel for its “track record” of being an independent constitutional body which shoulders a significant burden in ensuring the sanctity of electoral democracy.

“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. Judicial language is a window to a conscience sensitive to constitutional ethos. Bereft of its understated balance, language risks losing its symbolism as a protector of human dignity. The power of judicial review is entrusted to the High Courts under the Constitution...,” it said.

The verdict said the top court has been tasked with balancing of rights of two independent constitutional authorities, Madras High Court and the poll panel.

Praising high courts, it said they are constantly in touch with ground realities in their jurisdictions and during the pandemic, “the High Courts across the country have shown commendable foresight in managing the public health crisis which threatens to submerge humanity”.

“Their anguish when they come face to face with reality must be understood in that sense. On the other hand is the EC, a constitutional authority tasked with the critical task of undertaking superintendence and control of elections under Article 324 of the Constitution. The EC has facilitated the operation of our constitutional democracy by conducting free and fair elections and regulating conduct around them for over seven decades. Its independence and integrity are essential for democracy to thrive,” it said.

The verdict came on an appeal by the poll panel against the Madras High Court’s observation.

The high court had on April 26 castigated the EC for the surge in COVID-19 cases during the second wave of the pandemic, holding it “singularly” responsible for the spread of the viral disease, called it the “the most irresponsible institution” and even said its officials may be booked under murder charges. PTI

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