DATE OF JUDGEMENT:
6th May 2021
Justice D.Y Chandrachud, Justice M.R Shah
1767 of 2021
Chief Election Commissioner of India ........ (Appellant)
M.R Vijayabhaskar & Others. ......... (Respondents)
In this case, the Supreme Court was dealing with the matter wherein the Election Commission wanted to seek directions from the Hon'ble court to restrain the media from reporting the remarks passed by the Madras High Court judges against the election commission wherein they were blamed and held responsible for the 2nd wave.
1. A candidate of AIADMK of Karur Legislative Assembly Constituency and who is also the District Secretary filed a writ petition in Madras High Court to ensure that Covid-19 protocols are followed in the polling booths in Karur Legislative Assembly Constituency of Tamil Nadu and that was accepted by the Madras High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution.
2. On 16th April 2021, with regards to the rising number of Corona cases, the AIADMK candidate sent a representation to the Election Commission to take adequate steps and precautions to secure the health and safety of officers in the counting booth. As no response was obtained by the election commission hence, a writ petition in the High Court was filed to seek directions that significant steps are taken and arrangements are made following covid-19 protocols on 2nd May 2021 also to ensure fair counting of votes at the 135- Karur Legislative Assembly Constituency.
3. This writ petition was heard by a 2 judge division bench of Madras High Court comprising of Chief Justice of Madras High Court Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy and the order was passed on 26th April 2021.
4. Even though the order was passed by the Madras High Court the thing which irked the election commission was the remarks passed and certain observations made by the judges during the proceedings which did not go down well. The remarks which were made by the judges and were pointed out in the petition are–“The solely responsible institution for 2nd wave of covid is the Election Commission” and “Election Commission should be charged for murder.”
5. Though the above remarks were made orally and this was not recorded in the order of the high court but the media reported the remarks which made headlines in print, electronic & social media. This made the election commission file a special leave petition before the Supreme Court of India that their miscellaneous application was not assessed based on merits and also regarding the oral observation and remarks of the Madras High Court.
1. Whether the media should be restrained from reporting oral remarks made during judicial proceedings?
Constitution of India
• Article19(1)(A)- Guarantees Freedom of Speech & Expression.
1. The counsel representing the Election Commission contended that the remarks and observations made by the high court judges are made without proof or material on record. Also, the judges gave no opportunity to the election commission to explain themselves and the steps and measures taken for maintaining covid-19 protocol. This kind of remarks made by them has tainted the image of the election commission as it was widely reported by the media. These remarks can diminish the faith of people in the election commission and further would point out its constitutional authority.
2. Further, the counsel argued that the scope of judicial review is limited pertaining to matters of election and its conduct. The advocate explained that the election commission had conducted elections during covid in many states and could control and take necessary steps for its prevention. He asserted that the enforcement of protocols and measures is in the hands of the State as the election commission during elections does not take over the governance by a State. Even the personnel deployed on the ground while elections are limited in number.
3. It was further argued that even an analysis of the data would indicate that election did not play an important role in the rise of covid cases in the country. The counsel submitted that the election commission had issued guidelines to be followed during elections and constrained the scope of political campaigns. The election commission faced undue prejudice due to the oral remarks and observations made by the Madras High Court.
4. The media should ensure that there is responsible reporting of the proceedings and such judicial proceedings should not be sensationalized by the media because such kind of reporting could lead to loss of public confidence. Hence, guidelines and directions must be framed in the manner in which the proceedings of the court should be reported. There should be a balance between the media reporting and the conduct of the court proceedings.
5. Representing the respondent on caveat, the advocate opposing the submissions contended by pointing out the fact that the Election Commission enjoys a wide range of powers during the period of elections in a State like replacing or suspending district magistrates, police officers, Director-General of Police and even deploying paramilitary forces to ensure that the rules, guidelines or directives are followed. Also, the election commission was responsible for the execution of safety measures and covid protocols during elections.
6. The Supreme Court observed that oral remarks made during any judicial proceedings are never recorded as part of the order or judgement and thus, the question of removing does not arise. The court did agree that the remarks made by the Madras High Court judges were harsh. The Apex Court said that while making such ‘off the cut remark” statements the judges should restrain themselves in open courts. It was emphasized that the language used by the judges while making observations orally or in judgements should have judicial propriety.
7. The Supreme Court rejected the prayer of the election commission to restrict the media from reporting any oral remarks made by the judges as it strikes the fundamental principles guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Furthermore, the judges explained that the concept of open court requires that the information regarding the judicial proceedings in a court must be accessible to the public and thus it should be made available in the public domain.
8. The court also took the example of print media reporting the trials or court proceedings during the British Raj like the sedition trial of Lokmanya Tilak. The Supreme Court judges advised that it would be better if the Constitutional Authorities accept the new reality rather than complaining. The court also praised the High Courts for its commendable job during the covid crisis.
As rightly said by the Supreme Court, an open court ensures that the judges act in consonance with the law. The apex court included the media reporting of judicial proceedings under the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression stating that it is part of freedom of the press. The election commission has a track record of being an independent body and so it should maintain being so.
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