Media Freedom To Report Court Hearings Upheld By Supreme Court

Key Takeaways

● Election Commission of India v MR Vijaya Bhaskar

● The right of the media to report on judges' and lawyers' oral remarks and discussions during a court hearing

● The freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) applies to covering judicial proceedings, according to a bench led by Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah.

● This court is a strong supporter of the media's right to report on court proceedings. This is critical to the freedom of speech and expression of those who speak, as well as those who want to listen and be heard, and, most importantly, to keep the judiciary accountable.


Introduction

The Supreme Court reiterated on Thursday the value of the media covering court proceedings rather than only written orders, reiterating its earlier denial of an Election Commission request to prevent the media from publishing court oral observations.

The bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah ruled that “freedom of speech and expression applies to disclosing the proceedings of judicial institutions.”

“Citizens have a right to expect courts to uphold their mandate as a check on unconstitutional power exercises. Citizens' capacity to do so is directly related to the continuous availability of facts about what happens in a courtroom during trials. That is why media freedom to comment on and write about proceedings is so important.”

The Supreme Court issued the "balanced" written order it promised on Monday, though orally refusing to hear the poll panel's request to prevent High Courts from making stinging oral observations and the media from covering them.

On the basis of oral observations by the Madras High Court, which blamed the poll panel for the Covid revival, the bench also declined to prevent the country's police from registering murder cases against Election Commission (EC) officials.


Details Of The Case

On April 26, the Madras High Court chastised the Election Commission for allowing massive poll rallies, saying orally that the commission was "singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19" and that the commission "should be placed up for murder charges."

Though reiterating Monday's observations, the Supreme Court's written order on Thursday emphasized the role of the country's "open court system" and media scrutiny in protecting citizens' constitutional rights.

Except for in-camera hearings and matters such as child sex abuse or marital privacy, India's legal system was built on the premise that open access to courts was critical to safeguarding fundamental freedoms, according to the Supreme Court order.

Keeping openness and accountability needs public scrutiny, the judgment stated that “transparency in the operation of democratic institutions is critical to establishing the public's trust in them.”

“An open court system leads to the functioning of government in a variety of ways. Judges operate in compliance with the law and with probity in an open court system. Public scrutiny boosts confidence in the system. Public debate and criticism can serve as a check on a judge's actions.”

The right of the media to cover court proceedings is "both a part of the process of enhancing the dignity of the courts and the cause of justice as a whole," according to the court.

“This Court is a strong supporter of the media's right to report on court proceedings. This, we conclude, is critical to those who speak freely, to those who want to hear and be heard, and, most importantly, to keep the judiciary accountable to the principles that justify its role as a constitutional institution."

An open court case, according to the court, means that the legal process is open to public scrutiny, which is critical for ensuring transparency and accountability.


Courts Order

The Supreme Court has once again ruled in favour of press freedom, holding that the media has the right to report on judicial trials, including oral observations and conversations between judges and lawyers in a courtroom exchange.

In the case of Election Commission of India v MR Vijaya Bhaskar, the court ruled that the right to free speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution also applies to reporting judicial proceedings.

Election Commission of India lodged a lawsuit in this case, requesting that the media refrain from covering oral comments made by judges during a courtroom exchange. While hearing a petition, the Madras High Court claimed that the ECI officials are solely responsible for the second wave of COVID and should be charged with murder.

The court noted that the Election Commission of India petition violates two basic values guaranteed by the Indian Constitution: freedom of speech and expression and open courtroom proceedings.

The court noted that, with the exception of in-camera hearings in special circumstances, courts are meant to be open to the public in order to protect fundamental freedoms. The general public has a right to know what happens in a courtroom during a criminal trial.

The bench emphasized the importance of "transparency in democratic institutions" in order to gain public confidence, as well as public oversight and accountability. The open court system guarantees that judges behave in accordance with the law.

The court went on to say that the open court system serves educational purposes by allowing people to learn about the practical implementation of laws and regulations enacted by the executive and legislature.

As a result, the bench dismissed the Election Commission of India request for a halt to media coverage of judicial proceedings, holding that such information is part of citizens' right to information.

The obligation to maintain the judiciary's independence and encourage judges to express themselves freely in court is one end of the continuum, according to Justice Chandrachud, who wrote the bench's 31-page decision.

“On the other hand, and equally essential, judges' power must not be unbridled, and judicial restraint must be exercised before using strong and scathing language to condemn any person or organization."

“Citizens have a right to know what happens in the course of legal proceedings. The structure of a judicial trial is shown by the conversation in the courtroom. The foundation of oral arguments is a free exchange of ideas. Legal claims are checked and evaluated in such an exchange.

“The court's arguments, opposing counsel's responses, and questions posed by the court are all matters in which people have a reasonable right to be consulted. The legal process is open to public scrutiny in an open court case. Maintaining integrity and accountability needs public scrutiny.


Background

The Supreme Court disagreed with the high court's findings, calling them "harsh" and "inappropriate metaphors."

It urged the High Courts to tread carefully when making off-the-cuff comments in public.

“We hope that the situation will be resolved with the sense of fairness that we have tried to achieve. The bench said, "Since these oral remarks (by the High Court) are not part of the official judicial record, the issue of expungement does not arise."

The bench reaffirmed its Monday position that the poll panel had the right to go to the Calcutta High Court and ask for the culpable homicide FIR against deputy election commissioner Sudeep Jain, who was in charge of the Bengal elections, to be quashed.

On a complaint from the wife of Trinamul nominee Kajal Sinha, who died of Covid, the case was registered in Calcutta two days after the Madras High Court observations.

The complaint did not mention the Madras High Court, according to Justice Chandrachud, who wrote the decision. He called the EC's request for a blanket ban on murder FIRs against its officials "misconceived."

The apex court stated that it was tasked with balancing the rights of two independent constitutional authorities, the Madras High Court and the EC and that the Indian legal system is founded on the principle that open access to courts is essential to safeguard valuable constitutional freedoms and that the concept of an open court requires that information relating to the proceeding be available in public.

“As we consider the media's freedom to publish and disseminate issues and incidents, including court cases that are in the public domain, it's necessary to remember that this isn't only about safeguarding the rights of individuals and organizations to report, but also about enhancing the judiciary's reputation."


Conclusion

“Both the language of the Bench and the language used in decisions must be consistent with judicial propriety. The use of language in a judicial process that is attentive to constitutional principles is a valuable tool. Judicial language reveals a conscience that is sensitive to the constitutional ethos. Language risks losing its symbolism as a defender of human dignity if it loses its understated balance. The Constitution gives the High Courts the power of judicial review.,” it said.

It praised the High Courts across the world, saying they are always in contact with local realities and have shown commendable foresight in "managing the public health crisis that threatens to submerge humanity" during the pandemic.

In that sense, their pain when confronted with reality must be appreciated. The EC, on the other hand, is a legislative authority entrusted with the vital duty of supervising and controlling elections in accordance with Article 324 of the Constitution.

For more than seven decades, the EC has aided the functioning of our constitutional democracy by holding free and fair elections and controlling behaviour surrounding them. Its independence and dignity are critical for a democracy to succeed.

 

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