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SC rules out gag on real time court proceedings, dismisses EC’s plea

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New Delhi, May 6, 2021 –
The Supreme Court on Thursday said it may be retrograde for it 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, as it emphasised that there can be no gag on real time court proceedings, which is an extension of freedom of press and principles of an open court.

A bench comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah said: “This court stands as a staunch proponent of the freedom of the media to report court proceedings.”

The top court dismissed a petition by the Election Commission against the Madras High Court’s oral remarks on April 26, which blamed the poll panel for the Covid-19 surge, but was not part of the official judicial record.

The top court observed that reporting on court proceedings 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.

It, however, emphasised: “Language, both on 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 bench noted that with the advent of technology, it is seeing reporting proliferate through social media forums which provide real-time updates to a much wider audience. “This constitutes a virtual extension of the open court. This phenomenon is not a cause of apprehension, but a celebration of our constitutional ethos which bolsters the integrity of the judiciary by focusing attention on its functions.”

The bench added that several courts across the world, including the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeal, and the International Criminal Court enable public viewership of proceedings through livestreaming or other suitable open access methodology.

However, the top court remarked that the remarks of the High Court were harsh and inappropriate. “The High Court – if indeed it did make the oral observations which have been alluded to – did not seek to attribute culpability for the Covid-19 pandemic in the country to the EC. What instead it would have intended to do was to urge the EC to ensure stricter compliance of Covid-19 related protocols during elections,” it noted.

The poll panel said the reporting by media of the oral observations dented its reputation.

The top court, however, maintained that the 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, and oral arguments are postulated on an open exchange of ideas, it said.

The top court also appreciated the role played by High Courts during Covid-19 pandemic, however, it emphasised that judges need to “exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks which may be susceptible to misinterpretation”. (Agency)

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