Supreme Court upholds right to report court proceedings

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By: K Raveendran

The Madras High Court’s ‘warning’ to the Election Commission that it should be booked for murder for failing to prevent the spread of Covid infection, no doubt, came like a bolt from the blue. But the demand by the poll panel that media must be debarred from reporting observations made by judges in the court is simply outlandish and clearly exceeds the commission’s brief. It is all too well that the Supreme Court has rejected the demand with the contempt that it deserves.

It is understandable that the commission felt aggrieved by the court’s remarks as those may have sounded somewhat uncharitable, although its failure to prevent super-spreader events deserves condemnation by all means. But that does not mean that the snub gives it the locus standi to the poll body to seek a generic ban on reporting of court proceedings. It could at best have asked for restraining the press from reporting the specific remarks about murder charges rather than take a position on an issue that was clearly outside its domain.

The commission had taken the stand that it was a constitutional authority and that such harsh remarks could not be made against it, that too without giving an opportunity of being heard. The Supreme Court rejected the contention that the Election Commission as a constitutional body was beyond judicial review.

The court, while rejecting the Election Commission plea, showed how the High Court’s indignation helped as the critical remarks actually forced the commission to act and take steps to prevent further crowd gatherings.  The apex court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah pointed out that sometimes judges make observations in the larger public interest. “Your subsequent decisions after the remarks have improved the system. Look at what happened in counting. You take it in the right spirit..as a bitter pill.”

The court agreed that the commission was an important pillar of democracy, but sometimes observations are made in the course of exchanges and these should not be considered as offensive because it is part of the effort to improve things. “Elections in our country have been a cornerstone of the existence of our democracy and we want all institutions to be free. When we write an order don’t think we are castigating ECI. We will bring balance. We have to because the issue is complex,” he said.

Even as the Supreme Court cautioned judges to exercise restraint not to make off-the-cuff remarks, it upheld the right of the media to report court proceedings. The court pointed out that the media discharges an important function in adding vitality to democracy and it cannot be restricted from covering court proceedings in any manner. Courts have to remain alive to evolving technology of media, it is not good, if it is restrained from reporting judicial proceedings, the bench said.

While emphasising that the court cannot ask media not to report discussions taking place in courts, Justice Chandrachud pointed out that the discussion that takes place is in as much public interest as the final order of the court. “The discussion in court is a dialogue between the bar and the bench. Media is a very powerful watchdog in protecting the sanctity of this process.”

The Supreme Court pointed out that the judges are overburdened and saying what they’re seeing around them. Justice Chandrachud observed that to ask a judge to contain what he says in court will not do justice to any judicial process.

“We don’t want to demoralize our High Courts, which are doing tremendous work during the COVID…We cannot tell the Judges that confine yourself to pleadings. The HC Judges are doing tremendous work, burning the midnight oil, they are overwhelmed. They know what’s happening on the ground. It is bound to affect your psyche,” the court said. (IPA Service)

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