The Supreme Court on Monday said the media cannot be stopped from reporting any court hearing, reported Live Law.

The top court was hearing a plea by the Election Commission against Madras High Court’s observation that the poll body should be booked on charges of murder for allowing rallies to continue in spite of the massive second wave of coronavirus pandemic.

“The media is powerful and communicating what happens in court,” the bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah told the poll panel. “Not only our judgements, but raising of questions, answers and dialogues is a concern for citizens. Media not reporting observations is far-fetched.”

The bench also made it clear that it cannot interfere with the oral observations made by High Courts. It added that such dialogue between the bar and the bench was an essential facet of the judicial process.

“The discussions that take place are of importance, in fact of the same order and are in public interest,” said Justice Chandrachud. “It’s not a monologue that one person will speak and then judges will speak.” He added that such dialogues and the reporting of it by the media create accountability.

Chandrachud said there was a need to protect the sanctity of the high court, “that they have the freedom and liberty to ask questions as well”. He added: “We wish the media should report fully of what is happening in court, it brings accountability.”

The Supreme Court also noted that any order passed in this regard could affect the morale of the High Courts. “We are looking at this from a long term and impact on functioning of High Courts,” said the top court. “We don’t want to demoralise our high courts. They are vital pillars of our democracy. Things are often said in an open dialogue between bar and bench.”

Justice Shah said oral observations were also made in public interest. He added that strong observations were made often out of anger or frustration, and sometimes they worked as a “bitter pill”.

During the hearing, senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi said that the Election Commission was pained by the High Court’s observations. He said the High Court made the remarks without giving the EC an opportunity to explain the steps taken by it. Dwivedi said Covid management was not the Election Commission’s prerogative. “Harsh criticism are also welcome but somewhere line has to be drawn,” he added.

The Supreme Court agreed that the High Court’s “murder charges” remarks were quite strong but said that they might have been made out of anguish and frustration. “Left to myself, I would not have made those remarks,” said Chandrachud. “I’m sure my brother Justice Shah also would not have made it.”

But he maintained that the Supreme Court cannot dilute the judicial process. “We will strike a balance to maintain the independence of our High Courts while taking your concerns into account,” he said.

The court then reserved its order till Thursday. “But tell ECI that the intention is not to run down an institution,” said Justice Chandrachud, according to Bar and Bench. “In our order, we will clarify that institutions have to be strengthened.”

On April 29, the Election Commission had approached the Madras High Court seeking directions to restrain the media from reporting on its criticism of the poll panel. The High Court, however, refused to pass any such order. The Election Commission then approached the Supreme Court against the High Court’s refusal to entertain the plea.

The Election Commission in its plea contended that the Madras High Court’s observations were “uncalled for, blatantly disparaging and derogatory”. The plea added that the allegations of murder were made “without any basis” and it had “ultimately dented both the institutions”.

Elections amid pandemic

On April 26, while hearing a plea seeking fair counting of votes on May 2 by making proper arrangements with Covid-19 protocols, Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee held that the Election Commission was “singularly responsible for the second wave of the pandemic”.

The comments came as Assembly elections in five states – West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry – were held despite a record surge in cases in India.

In West Bengal, politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah held gigantic rallies until the third week of April, when the Election Commission finally banned all roadshows and limited gatherings to 500 people amid the worsening situation. The Election Commission has also banned all victory processions by political parties after the results are announced.

After the fourth round of elections in West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had announced that it will not organise big election rallies for the remaining phases. Congress MP Rahul Gandhi cancelled his rallies in West Bengal and Banerjee also decided to hold smaller election meetings. Shah, however, said that it was not right to link the surge in coronavirus cases in India to elections.