The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed the Election Commission of India’s petition seeking directions to restrain the media from reporting the remarks of judges, reported Live Law.

On April 29, the Election Commission had approached the Madras High Court seeking directions to restrict media coverage on the court’s criticism of the poll panel. The High Court, however, refused to pass any such order.

The plea was moved after news reports were widely shared on the Madras High Court’s scathing remarks about the manner in which the Election Commission of India had conducted the recently concluded Assembly polls in four states and one Union Territory. Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee had held the Election Commission singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19 ripping through the country.

After the High Court rejected the poll body’s plea, it moved the Supreme Court against the High Court’s refusal to entertain the plea.

During the hearing on Thursday, the Supreme Court dismissed the Election Commission’s plea, saying that it found no substance in it. “It is essential to hold the judiciary accountable,” the court said. “Freedom of speech and expression extends to reporting proceedings in judicial institutions as well. The courts’ works have direct impact on the rights of citizens and also to the extent citizens can exact accountability from [an] institution.”

The bench, comprised of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah, said that it would not do the judiciary any good in preventing “new forms of media from reporting our work”, reported Live Law.

Open access to court proceedings was the “cornerstone of constitutional freedom”, the Supreme Court bench said, reported Bar and Bench. “In a constitutional framework based on checks and balances can ECI [Election Commission of India] set up a plea when there is constitutional immunity to a body? We say courts must be open save and except for in camera proceedings like marital privacy etc.”

The public was more digitally savvy and looks for information on the internet, the court noted, adding that constitutional institutions should do better than complaining about this. The court further said that “real-time updates” on court proceedings were a part of media freedom.

However, the court said that the Madras High Court’s remarks “were harsh and the metaphor improper”. Justice Chandrachud also called for restraint from the judiciary on making “off-the-cuff remarks” that may be misinterpreted, according to Bar and Bench.

It added: “Oral remarks are not part of the order and hence there is no question of expungement.”

Elections during the pandemic

While the country battled with a record surge in Covid-19 cases for days during the second wave and hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen, politicians were holding election rallies attended by thousands with little evidence of masks or physical distancing.

In West Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah held gigantic rallies till the Election Commission banned all roadshows and limited gatherings to 500 people amid the worsening situation. However, the decision came ahead of the seventh and eighth phases of voting in West Bengal.

The Bharatiya Janata Party drew severe criticism from the Opposition for continuing with its rallies. 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 Chief Minister Mamata 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.

The Madras High Court is not the only High Court that had taken up the problem of Covid-19 protocols being flouted during the Assembly polls. Since the second week of April, the Calcutta High Court has been asking the commission to ensure strict adherence to pandemic norms. It even said that election officials would be held personally responsible for violations.

In the last two months, several High Courts in the country have taken up petitions, sometimes of their own accord, relating to the government’s inadequate response to the second wave of the pandemic. Of particular note are proceedings in the Bombay and Delhi High Courts, which intervened to ensure the supply of oxygen to hospitals and availability of antiviral drugs for Covid-19 patients.