The Chief Election Commissioner Of India Vs. M.R. Vijaybhaskar & Ors.
In The Supreme Court Of India
Authored By- Sweety Kumari
Name Of The Case: The Chief Election Commissioner Of India Vs. M.R. Vijaybhaskar & Ors.
Citation: Civil Appeal No. 1767 Of 2021 (Arising Out Of Slp (C) No. 6731 Of 2021)
Date Of The Judgement: May 6,2021
Appellant: The Chief Election Commissioner Of India
Respondent: M.R. Vijaybhaskar & Ors.
Bench/Judge: D. Y. Chandrachud & M.R. Shah
Statutes/Constitution Involved: Constitution Of India
Important Sections/Articles: Constitution Of India ---- Article 19(1)(A)
In the present case, the Election Commission pleaded in the Hon'ble Supreme Court wanting the High Court of Madras to pass directions curtailing the media to circulate the remarks made by the High Court during the proceedings of the case in which they blamed the Election Commission for the 2nd wave of Covid 19 as the High Court observed that the Election Commission had not ensured that covid protocols are strictly followed and allowed rallies of the political parties to continue.
In the present case, the Election Commission filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was entrusted with the question to determine the balance of powers between two constitutional authorities in India. This case raised the issue of the freedom of speech and expression of the media and the judiciary's accountability to the nation. Whether the media can report the oral remarks by the judges during the case proceedings along with the judgments and its purpose in court is discussed in the case.
Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression to every citizen under article 19(1)(a). The Supreme Court held in the case of Express Newspaper (p) Limited vs. Union of India that this Article also implicitly guarantees the right to freedom of the press but it has to be in consonance with Article 19(2). This freedom also includes the freedom to report judicial proceedings of the court with certain restrictions so that the court proceedings are not affected.
FACTS OF THE CASE
The Election Commission (EC) notified on February 26th, 2021 that general elections to the legislative assemblies are to be held in the state of Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, and Pondicherry. In Tamil Nadu, the voting was to be held on 6th April 2021 and the votes were to be counted on 2nd May 2021. On 12th March 2021, the EC addressed a letter to the Presidents and General Secretaries to the political parties regarding the directions related to Covid-19 protocols that need to be adhered to during the election processes.
On 16th April 2021 EC issued an order banning the rallies, public meetings, and street play between 7 pm and 10 am and another letter was issued which laid down emphasis on the strict adherence to the Covid-19 protocols.
The District Secretary, also a candidate of the AIADMK of the 135- Karur Legislative Assembly Constituency filed a writ petition before the High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution regarding the contravention of the rules made by the EC and to ensure the adherence of the Covid-19 protocols
On 16th April 2021 M.R. Vijayabhaskar, sent a representation to the EC regarding the rise of the covid cases and asked to take sufficient steps to safeguard the health and protection of the officers at the counting booths. As no response was received a writ petition was filed before the High Court to check and give directions to ensure covid protocols are followed and fair counting of votes takes place on 2nd May 2021.
2 judge division bench of the Madras High Court heard the writ petition and passed the order on 26th April 2021 stating that EC failed to check the compliance of the safety protocols during rallies by the political parties and took no actions to over the political parties despite the court orders to follow the safety norms. The Court expressed that the voting and counting should not be done in such a manner as to result in an increase in the cases of the covid-19 and it is distressing that the constitutional authorities have to be repeatedly reminded that public health regulation is vital. The judges remarked that " The solely responsible institution for 2nd wave of covid is the Election Commission" and "Election Commission should be charged for murder".
The oral remarks made by the judges didn't form part of the judicial record but it was disseminated by the media as headlines which in some way or the other tarnished the EC's image. So the EC approached the Supreme Court and filed a special leave petition.
ISSUES RAISED BEFORE THE COURTS
ARGUMENTS FROM THE APPELLANT SIDE
ARGUMENTS FROM THE RESPONDENT SIDE
Constitution of India
Article 19(1)(A): - (1) All citizens shall have the right ----
to freedom of speech and expression
The Supreme Court stated that the judgment or orders passed by the courts don't include the oral remarks made by the judges during the judicial proceedings so the question of removing them does not arise. The court admitted that the Madras High Court had made harsh comments and that the judges should refrain from making harsh, off the cut remark in open courts. The Court held that these remarks don't form a part of the judgment. They just act as a perspective that helps the judges to come to a final decision. These perspectives of the judges help the parties to frame their arguments in such a manner that will help to persuade the judges to give the decision in their favour. The freedom of expression of judges and control on the use of harsh/strong language should be balanced.
The court also stated that EC, a constitutional body is not given immunity from the checks and balances of the judiciary and the judiciary is empowered to check its functioning so that it does not affect the rights of the people due to its working.
The plea of the appellant that the media should be restrained from reporting oral remarks of the judges given by them during the judgment was rejected by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that in a democratic society like ours if the media is restrained from reporting the judicial proceedings, it will strike the fundamental principles which are laid down by our Indian Constitution. The system of open court in the judicial sphere emphasizes on the dissemination of information about the proceedings of the court to the general public so that they could also build up such rationale based on these proceedings. Information about the judicial proceedings will put the judicial procedures under public scrutiny. It will help to make the democratic institutions accountable; transparency will be maintained and people's faith will be there in these institutions as stated in the case of Mohammed Shahabuddin v. State of Bihar. The court also cited the case of R v. Socialist Workers Printers, ex p Attorney General in which Lord Widgery stressed upon the role played by public hearings in checking the conduct of judges, parties to the case, and the witnesses. In the case of Swapnil Tripathi v. Supreme Court of India, the Court emphasized on the importance of live streaming of judicial proceedings.
The press is given the right to freedom under Article 19(1)(a) as was elucidated in the Express Newspaper (P) Limited v. Union of India which is regulated by Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution as was explained in the case of LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah (Prof.). This also includes the right to report the judicial proceedings of the court. The citizens should know about the information related to judicial proceedings and the media is entrusted with this duty. But there are also certain limitations on media so that their reporting does not affect the judicial proceedings and interest of the parties involved in the case.
The court also held that media does not have its rights limited to making information and issues available to the public but also it helps to raise the integrity of the judicial system. So, it should not be prevented from reasonable reporting of judicial proceedings.
The Supreme Court held that the remarks of the Madras High Court were harsh but they did not make EC culpable for it. The remarks were to make EC comply with the protocols strictly. These remarks were oral observations and opinions of judges and thus do not form part of judicial records.
Through this case, the court ruled out that in the judicial process language used forms a vital part and should be made in such a manner so that constitutional values are not affected. The remarks were made so that EC strictly complies with protocols. The media have the right to report judicial proceedings subject to regulations as people have a right to know about these to empower themselves.
In my opinion, the judgment stated the scope of Article 19(1)(a) concerning media reports. The media must make information available to the citizens only then true democratic ideas can be realized. The decision was a balanced one as the remarks were made with the aim of compliance with rules and were not made for questioning EC's sanctity or its independent authority.
 The Constitution of India, art. 19(1)(a)
 AIR 2020 4 SCC 653
 1974 3 WLR 801
 AIR 2018 10 SCC 628
 AIR 1959 SCR 12
 1993 AIR 171,1992 SCR (3) 595