New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday said it is a “staunch proponent of freedom of media” to report court proceedings and trashed a plea of the Election Commission that press should be reporting orders only and not observations, saying such a demand struck at principles of open court and the fundamental right to freedom of speech under Constitution.
“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,” a bench comprising justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said. The remarks were part of the judgement by which the top court did not allow the plea of the Election Commission seeking expunction of remarks of the Madras High Court that the poll panel was responsible for surge in COVID-19 cases and murder charges be put on its responsible officers, saying the oral observations were not part of “official judicial record” and hence there was no question of expunging them.
Referring to the right of media, the judgment, penned by Justice Chandrachud for the bench, said citizens have a right to know as to what transpires in judicial proceedings through media and the freedom of speech and expression to media is also impliedly provided by Article 19 of the Constitution.
The 31-page verdict said the freedom of speech and expression extends to reporting the proceedings of judicial institutions as well and the courts are entrusted to perform crucial functions under the law.
“Their (courts’) work has a direct impact, not only on the rights of citizens, but also the extent to which the citizens can exact accountability from the executive whose duty it is to enforce the law. Citizens are entitled to ensure that courts remain true to their remit to be a check on arbitrary exercises of power” 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 analyzed.
“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.
Courts must be open except for in-camera proceedings in cases involving child sexual abuse or matrimonial proceedings bearing on matters of marital privacy, it said.
The judgement 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…,” it said.
The top court lauded the Gujarat High Court for recently introducing livestreaming of proceedings.
“In this backdrop, it would be retrograde for this court to promote the rule of law and access to justice on one hand, and shield the daily operations of the High Courts and this Court from the media in all its forms, by gagging the reporting of proceedings, on the other,” the bench said.