New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday refused to gag the media from reporting court proceedings, including oral observations made by judges, saying that the proceedings augment public scrutiny and are crucial to maintain institutional transparency and accountability.
A bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah, however, also advised high court judges to exercise caution while making off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which could be susceptible to misinterpretation.
The court was hearing the Election Commission of India’s plea asking for a gag on media reporting of cases related to elections, especially judges’ oral remarks. This was after a Madras High Court judge said that EC should be “be put on murder charges probably” for allowing massive poll rallies to take place, last week.
Rejecting the poll body’s plea, the SC bench held that the Constitution guarantees media freedom of speech and expression, and the same extended to reporting of proceedings of judicial institutions as well.
It recognised the transition in media, with the advent of technology, and said reporting has proliferated through social media forums, which provides real-time updates to a much-wider audience. This too, the court said, is an extension of the freedom of speech and expression that the media possesses.
Live updates on court hearings would amount to a virtual extension of a courtroom, which the court described as a public space. Therefore, the court opined, reporting of proceedings and not just formal orders will “augment the integrity of judiciary and cause of justice as a whole”.
EC says high court remarks hurt its image
On 26 April 2021, the Madras High Court had said that the Election Commission “should be put on murder charges” for “not stopping political parties from wanton abuse of the covid19 protocol” in election rallies.
This was widely reported in the media and a day later, according to the EC, a complaint against the Deputy Election Commissioner and other officials of the poll body was registered in Kolkata.
The EC’s plea also sought expungement of the oral remarks and a blanket direction to police authorities to not register any FIR on the HC’s oral observations.
At the heart of the commission’s contention was that the media must ensure there is accurate reporting of court proceedings and they must not be sensationalised. The basis of its application was that nothing should be reported apart from what forms a part of the official judicial record.
On the HC’s “disparaging” remarks, the EC said they were made without proof or material, tarnished its image as an independent constitutional authority and reduced the people’s faith in a constitutional authority.
Relationship between media and judicial independence
The SC bench, however, said that it was a staunch proponent of the media’s freedom to report court proceedings and that courts must be open both in the physical and metaphorical sense.
Except reporting on in-camera proceedings, which may be necessary in exceptional circumstances to preserve someone’s privacy, there should be open access to courts, the bench said.
This, it noted, is essential to safeguard valuable constitutional freedoms and would inform citizens about judicial proceedings.
On oral arguments, the bench said that they are postulated on an open exchange of ideas and it is through such an exchange that legal arguments are tested and analysed.
Oral observations by judges, arguments addressed in courts by lawyers and issues raised in the court are all part of this process, it noted.
Enunciating the relationship between media and judicial independence, SC said that courts are entrusted to perform crucial functions under the law and their work has a direct impact on society.
Furthermore, since citizens are entitled to ensure that courts remain true, it was necessary that there is seamless availability of information about what happens in a court during the course of proceedings. Media reports provide useful context in the study of law, the court said.
Courts must engage with evolving technology and not complain
The bench also lamented that its 2018 judgment allowing live broadcast of court proceedings is yet to be implemented.
It said that with the world has been adapting to new forms of social media and the courts must also engage with evolving technology. “Acceptance of a new reality is the surest way of adapting to it. Our public constitutional institutions must find better responses than to complain.”
“..many of our citizens are becoming digital natives from a young age. It is understandable that they will look towards modern forms of media, such as social media websites and applications, while consuming the news. This, understandably, would also include information reported about the functioning of courts,” the court said.
Therefore, it would do no good to the judiciary from preventing the new forms of media from reporting on court work, it added.
HC remarks were harsh, but cannot be expunged: SC bench
On the “disparaging remarks against ECI”, SC said that since they were not part of the formal order, the question of expunging them did not arise.
However, it noted that the remarks made by the HC were harsh and the metaphor was inappropriate.
The bench said if the HC did indeed make the oral observations which have been alluded to, it did not seek to attribute culpability for the Covid-19 pandemic in the country to the EC.
“What instead it would have intended to do was to urge the EC to ensure stricter compliance of COVID-19 related protocols during elections,” the court said, adding that the HC was faced with the situation of rising cases and, as a constitutional court, was entrusted with protecting the life and liberty of citizens.
However, the court emphasised that 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”.
On ECI’s plea to protect its officials from facing any police scrutiny, the court said the poll body must approach the appropriate judicial forum for remedy. This means that EC will have to file a petition before a court in Kolkata for relief.