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Freedom of Speech & Expression Covers Reporting of Judicial Proceedings: Supreme Court Rejects ECI Prayer to Stop Media Reporting of Oral Remarks [READ JUDGMENT]

The Supreme Court dismissed a plea made by the Election Commission of India to restrain media from reporting the oral remarks of judges. A bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah held that freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) extends to reporting judicial proceedings as well in the case titled Election Commission of India v MR Vijaya Bhaskar.

By: Gurleen Kaur Anand, Amity University, Mumbai

The bench was delivering the judgment in the petition filed by Election Commission of India against the oral remarks of Madras High Court that the ECI was “singularly responsible for COVID second wave” and “should probably be booked for murder charges.”

A delicate question of balancing the powers of two constitutional authorities in this appeal has raised larger issues of the freedom of speech and expression of the media, the right to information of citizens and the accountability of the judiciary to the nation.

A two-judge bench of the Apex Court, headed by Justice Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Justice M R Shah, while pronouncing the judgment on the EC appeal against the Madras High Court said that the courts cannot stop the media from reporting.

The ECI had moved the apex court after the Madras High Court remarked that the poll body is responsible for the surge in Covid-19 cases in the country. Regarding the specific remarks made by the Madras High Court, the Bench noted, “…we understand that the High Court was facing rising cases of COVID-19. The remarks were harsh and the metaphor improper. The High Court did not attribute culpability to the ECI for the spread of COVID-19…”

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court said that open access to court is the cornerstone of constitutional freedom.

Justice Chandrachud remarked that “Freedom of speech and expression covers freedom to cover court proceedings too.”

 In Express Newspaper (P) Limited vs Union of India, it was explained that Article 19(1)(a) would carry within it, implicitly, the right to freedom of the press. The Court held “―As with all freedoms, press freedom means freedom from and freedom for. A free press is free from compulsions from whatever source, governmental or social, external or internal. From compulsions, not from pressures; for no press can be free from pressures except in a moribund society empty of contending forces and beliefs.”

With the advent of technology, the reporting of media has been real-time, Justice Chandrachud said. The state High Courts are constantly in touch with the ground reality while talking about the current pandemic and these are constitutional courts.

It was further said that observations of the court cannot be construed as judgment.  The Apex Court also observed that media cannot be stopped from reporting oral remarks made by the judges, as the discussions in the court are also of public interest and that media reporting increases accountability.

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