Free speech order

The Supreme Court has rejected the Election Commission’s plea to restrain the media from reporting oral remarks made by judges during hearings, saying, ‘Citizens have a right to know about what transpires in the course of judicial proceedings.’ It refused to expunge the Madras High Court’s observation that the poll panel was responsible for the surge in Covid-19 cases and its officers should be slapped with murder charges, saying that the remarks weren’t part of the official judicial record. However, it appreciated the poll panel’s work, saying, ‘The EC has a track record of being an independent constitutional body which shoulders a significant burden in ensuring the sanctity of electoral democracy.’

A degree of caution and circumspection by the High Court would have allayed a grievance of the nature that arose in this case, it advised the HC. The verdict has to be understood from the standpoint of institutional interplay as it went much beyond the limited question in hand and enunciated very important principles of accountability and transparency in a democracy. Democracy functions through institutions which are assigned specific roles and together they form a system of checks and balances — a bulwark against possible concentration of powers in the hands of an individual, a group or even an organ of the State. Per se, there is nothing wrong in one pillar of democracy finding fault with the other as it is indicative of a healthy practice. One would agree with the verdict that open court proceedings ensure that the judicial process is subject to public scrutiny, which is crucial to maintaining transparency and accountability needed to establish people’s faith in the democratic set-up.

In 2012, a Constitution Bench had imported the concept of ‘neutralising device’ from American jurisprudence to empower courts to order postponement of reporting of sub judice matters. The court’s assertion that citizens have a right to know about what transpires in the course of judicial proceedings and that it stands as a staunch proponent of the freedom of the media to report court proceedings would be music to the ears of votaries of free speech.

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