“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.”
Supreme Court: In the case where the Election Commission of India (EC) had sought a direction restraining the media from reporting on court proceedings after Madras High Court made certain oral remarks attributing responsibility to the EC for the present surge in the number of cases of COVID-19, due to their failure to implement appropriate COVID-19 safety measures and protocol during the elections, the bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud* and MR Shah, JJ has refused to restrain the media from reporting on Court proceedings.
“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.”
During the course of the hearing, the Madras High Court had allegedly orally observed that the EC is “the institution that is singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19” and that the EC “should be put up for murder charges”. These remarks, though not part of the order of the High Court, were reported in the print, electronic and tele media.
EC had alleged that these remarks are baseless, and have tarnished image of the EC, which is an independent constitutional authority.
Noticing that these oral remarks are not a part of the official judicial record, and therefore, the question of expunging them did not arise, the Supreme Court said that,
“… the High Court was faced with a situation of rising cases of COVID-19 and, as a constitutional Court, was entrusted with protecting the life and liberty of citizens. The remarks of the High Court were harsh. The metaphor inappropriate. The High Court – if indeed it did make the oral observations which have been alluded to – 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.”
Tasked with balancing the rights of two independent constitutional authorities, the Court observed that the High Courts are often the first point of contact for citizens whose fundamental rights have been violated. High Courts are constantly in touch with ground realities in their jurisdictions.
“During the COVID-19 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, 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. This responsibility covers powers, duties and myriad functions which are essential for conducting the periodic exercise of breathing life into our democratic political spaces.”
While the Court held that the High Court was faced with a situation of rising cases of COVID-19 and, as a constitutional Court, was entrusted with protecting the life and liberty of citizens and hence, only intended to urge the EC to ensure stricter compliance of COVID-19 related protocols during elections, it emphasised on the need for judges to exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which may be susceptible to misinterpretation.
“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. So high is its pedestal that it constitutes a part of the basic features of the Constitution. Yet responsibility bears a direct co-relationship with the nature and dimensions of the entrustment of power. A degree of caution and circumspection by the High Court would have allayed a grievance of the nature that has been urged in the present case.”
The Court concluded by saying that the oral observations during the course of the hearing have passed with the moment and do not constitute a part of the record.
[Chief Election Commissioner of India v. M.R Vijayabhaskar, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 364, decided on 06.05.2021]
*Judgment by: Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud
Appearances before the Court:
For EC: Senior Advocate Rakesh Dwivedi and Advocate Amit Sharma