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Freedom of Media to report Court proceedings integral to hold Judiciary accountable: Supreme Court

While hearing an SLP on restricting the reporting of media, the Supreme Court upheld that freedom of speech and expression of media is crucial in ensuring public faith and accountability of the organs of any democratic institution. This Judgment was passed in the case of The Chief Election Commission of India vs. M.R. Vijayabhaskar & ors. [C.A.No.001767/2021] by a Double Bench consisting of Hon’ble Shri Justice Dr. D.Y. CHandrachud and Hon’ble Justrice M.R. Shah.

The special leave petition arose from an order by the Division Bench of the High Court of Judicature at Madras. The High court entertained a writ petition under article 226 of the Indian Constitution regarding the COVID-19 protocols to be followed in the polling booth at 135-Karur legislative assembly constituency. It is alleged by the petitioner that the HC orally observed that EC was singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19 and they should be put up for murder charges. The EC claims that these statements were baseless and tarnished the image of EC which is an independent constitutional authority. While preparing for election the EC issued a letter to the presidents and general secretaries of all national and political parties to observe the instructions related to COVID-19. During the polling phase it issued another order stating the norms of social distancing, wearing marks and other restrictions. When the breach of the same continued after repeated warning they banned public campaign and rallies between 7pm and 10 am.

The writ petition was filed by the respondent given the surge in the number of cases and while hearing the same, the Division bench passed an order. On hearing the petition again on 30th April 2020, the Madras HC disposed the petition on the basis of the steps taken by EC at the time of counting votes. The EC approached the Supreme court regarding its grievance regarding the oral observation and that the application had not been evaluated on merits.

The issue in hand was the prayer for restraint on media reporting, the Supreme Court in its premise stated that such a prayer breaks two fundamentals under the constitution- open court proceedings and the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. The SC observed that transparency of the functioning of a democratic body is crucial in gaining or maintaining the public faith and  that open court proceedings are significant in ensuring that the judges act according to law and probity. The SC observed that open court is equally important for people to be aware about the functioning of legislature and executive; in order for them to debate and discuss the functioning of the democratic institutions.

While dealing with the freedom of expression of media, the SC stated article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution and reiterated the freedom of media to inform and convey information while also expressing their ideas and opinion on all matters of interest. At the same time it also stated the restrictions that the fundamental right faces under article 19(2). The SC held that citizens are entitled to ensure that the court restrict arbitrary use of power and the same is possible only when there is unrestricted flow of information from media regarding the court proceedings. The court went on to state how technology has developed in the case of media and it is the democratic institutions who have to keep up with the same.

While concluding the SC observed that one end of the spectrum is to ensure the freedom of judges to freely express their opinions and the other end of spectrum is to ensure that they do no use scathing and harsh language. The balance between the two is maintained by the superior courts like the present and since the judicial order does not contain the language used, the SC found no reason to expunge the same. The Hon’ble Supreme court went on to hold, “The court stands as staunch proponent of 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.”

Click here for the Judgment.

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