Supreme Court snubs CEC for seeking gag on media

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday snubbed the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) for raising suspicion on the court reporting by the media and told him that the Election Commission can rather do something better.

A bench of Dr Justice Dhanjaya V Chandrachud and Justice MR Shah dismissed the plea that the media be restrained from reporting on oral observations made in court proceedings, saying it will be a ‘retrograde’ act. It also rejected a plea to remove Madras High Court's "murder charges" remark at the EC.

Justice Chandrachud went on to point out that many international courts allow the streaming of the court proceedings and even the Gujarat HC has also allowed it. "In this background, it would be retrograde for the court to gag reporting of proceedings and uphold the constitutional ethos."

"This is also a part of augmenting the integrity of the judiciary. With the advent of technology, we are seeing reporting with real time updates. It's a part of freedom of speech and expression. It's an extension of open court. Now people are more digital oriented and hence look to internet for information. Hence it would do no good to prevent a new medium to report proceedings. Constitutional bodies will do better than complain about this," the Bench said. It went on to stress that the Internet has revolutionalised the court room reporting and there should not be a good enough reason for the courts to engage with evolving technology. It said freedom of media lies in comments and reporting of the proceedings. News have travelled from newspaper and radio to Internet."

Noting that open access to the courts is the cornerstone of the constitutional freedom, the Court said Article 19.1 covers freedom of press, freedom of speech and expression and thus it covers freedom to cover court proceedings too. "We say courts be open except for in-camera proceedings like marital privacy," the court said.

It declined to remove the critical remarks of the Madras High Court, holding the EC responsible for the surge of the Covid cases in the country. The CEC had come in appeal against the HC's observation last month that the EC ws responsible for the spread of the virus by conducting the recent Assembly polls, noting that its officials should probably face "murder charges" for failing to adhere to the Covid-19 protocols.

The Bench said in a ruling reserved on Monday that it found no substance in the prayer of the CEC to restrain the media from reporting the court proceedings as it is essential to hold the judiciary accountable. It held: "A degree of caution and restraint on part of the HC would have allayed this proceedings. Oral remarks are not part of the HC order and hence no question of expunging them as sought."

"The oral remarks are not a part of the official judicial record, and therefore, the question of expunging them does not arise. 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, in view of the above discussion, 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," he court said.

It further noted that: "Observations during hearing are not a part of the judgment but a part of the solution and which elicits thought from the opposing counsels. if this expression is discouraged the process of judging will be closed."

Justice Chandrachud went on to stress that "there is a need for judicial restraint for off-the-cuff remarks which is open for misinterpretation." On the HC using strong words, the judgment said: "We understand that HC was facing rising cases of covid-19. Remarks were harsh and metaphor improper. HC did not attribute culpability to the Election Commission for the spread of covid-19."

The presiding judge stressed that the High Courts have played a commendable role in handling the Covid-19 pandemic and equally the Election Commission conducted free and fair elections for over 70 years and its independence is essential for democracy to thrive.

He said: "The manner in which proceedings are conducted in the superior court is unique to each judge. Such interaction is based on spontaneity of thought. Many times judges play the role of a devil's advocate."

On a delicate question of balancing power of two constitutional bodies -- Election Commission and High Court --leading to a question of power and role of the media, the Court said: "We look at freedom of media not only to report the orders, but also the judicial proceedings."

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