Facts of the Case
A Special Leave Petition arose from an order dated 30.04.2021 of a Division Bench of the High Court of Judicature at Madras. The High Court entertained a Writ Petition under Article 226 of the Constitution to ensure that COVID-related protocols were followed in the polling booths at the Legislative Assembly Constituency in Tamil Nadu. During the hearings, the Division Bench made certain remarks regarding the responsibility of EC, which the EC claimed to be baseless and further alleged that it tarnished their image. Later the EC announced general elections for the Legislative Assemblies of Tamil Nadu. A letter was issued by the EC emphasizing the obeying of instructions related to COVID-19 protocol during the elections. It was noted that in case of breach of norms the EC would consider banning public meetings and rallies. Eventually, due to non-following of the protocols public meetings, rallies, street plays were banned between 7 pm and 10 am. A Writ Petition was filed before the Madras High Court by the Respondent, who is the District Secretary and was a candidate of the AIADMK. Given the surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, the Respondents asked EC to take adequate precautions and measures to ensure the safety and health of officers in the counting booths. However, on receiving no response the Respondent approached the High Court. During the course of the hearing, it was alleged that the High Court orally observed that the EC is “the institution that is singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19” and that the EC “should be put up for murder charges”. These remarks were reported in print, electronic, and the media. Aggrieved by the same the EC approached the Supreme Court.
Arguments presented before the Court
Learned counsel appearing on the behalf of the EC submitted that the High Court ought not to have made disparaging oral observations. These remarks made by the High Court were widely reported in the media and have tarnished the image of the EC as an independent constitutional authority. Further, it was stated that all safety measures and protocols were taken by the EC. Opposing the submissions, learned counsel appearing on behalf of the Respondent stressed the fact that the EC enjoys wide-ranging powers in a State during the time of an election to ensure that their directives are followed. Thus, the EC was responsible for the implementation of safety measures and protocols relating to COVID-19 during the elections.
The Court stated that our legal system is founded on the principle that open access to courts is essential to safeguard valuable constitutional freedoms. The citizens have a right to know about what transpires in the course of judicial proceedings. Moreover. Public scrutiny fosters confidence in the process. Further, the Constitution guarantees the media the freedom to inform and convey information and to express ideas and opinions on all matters of interest. The Court stated that as it is understood the right of the media to report are a part of the public domain yet it is important to contextualize that it is not merely an aspect of protecting the rights of individuals on reporting but also a part of the process of augmenting the integrity of the judiciary and the cause of justice as a whole. It was noted that the comments of the High Court were indeed harsh and thus it was emphasized the need for the judge to exercise caution in off-the-cut remarks in open court. It was also noted regarding the reporting of the media that the freedom of speech and expression of those who speak, of those who wish to hear and to be heard, is holding the judiciary accountable to the values which justify its existence as a constitutional institution.
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