Holding that citizens have a right to know what transpires in judicial proceedings, the Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the plea by the Election Commission (EC) that the media be restrained from reporting oral observations after the Madras high court remarked that the poll body was 'singularly' responsible for the surge in COVID cases.
The top court said it is a 'staunch proponent of freedom of media' to report court proceedings and that the EC's contention that press should be reporting orders only and not observations struck at principles of open court and the fundamental right to freedom of speech under Constitution. Freedom of speech 'extends to reporting proceedings of judicial institutions as well', it added.
It also rejected the plea of the EC seeking expunction of the remarks of the Madras High Court, holding that the oral observations were not part of 'official judicial record' and therefore the question of expunging them does not arise.
The high court had on April 26 castigated the EC for the surge in COVID-19 cases during the second wave of the pandemic, orally observing that it was 'singularly' responsible for the spread of the viral disease and called it the 'the most irresponsible institution' and even said its officials may be booked under murder charges.
A bench comprising justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah while referring to the Constitutional importance of high courts and the EC said it has attempted to strike a balance, and emphasised there was a 'need for judges to exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which may be susceptible to misinterpretation'.
The verdict came on an appeal filed by the Election Commission against the Madras high court's observations.
'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...we find no substance in the prayer of the EC for restraining the media from reporting on court proceedings,' it said.
'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.'
The court also said an open court proceeding ensures that the judicial process is subject to public scrutiny which is crucial to maintaining transparency and accountability.
Justice Chandrachud, writing the 31-page judgement for the bench, said the duty to preserve independence of the judiciary and to allow freedom of expression of judges in court is one end of the spectrum.
'The other end of the spectrum, which is equally important, is that the power of judges must not be unbridled and judicial restraint must be exercised, before using strong and scathing language to criticize any individual or institution.'
Referring to the independence of judiciary from the executive and the legislature, the bench said it is the 'cornerstone' of the republic and such independence translates to being impartial, free from bias and uninfluenced by the actions of those in power, but also recognises the freedom to judges to conduct court proceedings within the contours of the well-established principles of natural justice.
'Judges in the performance of their duty must remain faithful to the oath of the office they hold, which requires them to bear allegiance to the Constitution.
'An independent judiciary must also be one which is accountable to the public in its actions (and omissions),' it said.
The bench said the ability of citizens to ensure that court remains true to their remit has a direct correlation to the 'seamless availability of information' about court proceedings and there the importance of freedom of media to comment comes in.
'Citizens have a right to know about what transpires in the course of judicial proceedings. The dialogue in a court indicates the manner in which a judicial proceeding is structured. Oral arguments are postulated on an open exchange of ideas. It is through such an exchange that legal arguments are tested and analysed.
'Arguments addressed before the court, the response of opposing counsel and issues raised by the court are matters on which citizens have a legitimate right to be informed. An open court proceeding ensures that the judicial process is subject to public scrutiny. Public scrutiny is crucial to maintaining transparency and accountability. Transparency in the functioning of democratic institutions is crucial to establish the public's faith in them,' it said.
Stating that it has been tasked with balancing of rights of two independent constitutional authorities, Madras high court and the EC, the apex court said the Indian legal system is founded on the principle that open access to courts is essential to safeguard valuable constitutional freedom and the concept of an open court requires that information relating to the proceeding must be available in public domain.
'As we understand the rights of the media to report and disseminate issues and events, including court proceedings that are a part of the public domain, it is important to contextualize that this is not merely an aspect of protecting the rights of individuals and entities on reporting, but also a part of the process of augmenting the integrity of the judiciary.'
The court also praised the poll panel for its 'track record' of being an independent constitutional body which shoulders a significant burden in ensuring the sanctity of electoral democracy.
'Language, both of 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...,' it said.
Praising the high courts across the country, it said they are constantly in touch with ground realities in their jurisdictions and during the pandemic they 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 is the EC, a constitutional authority tasked with the critical task of undertaking superintendence and control of elections under Article 324 of the Constitution.
'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,' it said.