While outcomes and efficiency of the judicial process are important, it is equally important that its process should be transparent and open to the public (except in a few instances where closed processes are warranted). Even during the days of overcrowded court halls, the media played a significant role in making the public aware of court proceedings. The pandemic-related restrictions on entry for the public to courts has only made the role of the media even more important. Media reporting of court proceedings can shape public opinion on its functioning, and over time affect the level of trust that the public place in the institutions and the process.
In the last few months there have been several interesting developments on this front. The Supreme Court launched an app to provide media personnel links to access live-streaming of its proceedings. Currently accredited media personnel get links to live video streaming of proceedings in certain court halls, just like advocates and parties to the case do. They are dependent on the court staff for providing them the links. The app is intended to make the video links available at one place and as a default option for media personnel who are entitled to it. This is similar to the press pass given to enter court halls.
At the same event, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana also promised to rationalise rules for accreditation of media personnel. The Supreme Court has norms for accreditation of legal correspondents, last amended in 2018. The norms provide a law degree as qualification for legal correspondents. These qualifications can be waived by the Chief Justice of India in his/her discretion subject to the correspondent meeting other qualifications and related experience requirements.
A Supreme Court bench refused to restrict media reporting of oral comments on the Election Commission made by a bench of the Madras High Court in the proceedings before it. The Madras High Court had made oral observations during a petition that the Election Commission had been callous in factoring in the pandemic situation while allowing parties to campaign and deciding on the election schedules. These oral observations were widely reported in the media. The Election Commission had approached the Supreme Court to restrict the media from further reporting these comments.
Two journalists and law students filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Allahabad High Court seeking access to its live proceedings. Given the pandemic restrictions, like many other courts, the Allahabad High Court too had moved to conducting its proceedings through video conference. But the links to these video meetings were not being shared with the media. This went against the principle of open courts that are followed in physical courtrooms. After the PIL was filed, the HC started providing access.
The media and the courts
These developments have shown how courts can play a crucial role in enabling the media personnel carrying out their duties. This is done in three ways.
1. Who has access? - Courts determine which media personnel should have access to court proceedings and who can report about it. This is done through accreditation rules that lay down eligibility conditions. Whether such accredited journalists should have legal background to ensure accuracy in reporting has been a contested topic.
2. How is access granted? - Before the pandemic, this was done through access to the court halls. These days it is done through access to links to the live video streaming of the proceedings. The Supreme Court and some High Courts have enabled media access to these links. The Gujarat High Court pioneered broadcasting of its proceedings on YouTube; Karnataka High Court has also started this practice recently.
The PIL in Allahabad High Court has highlighted the disparity in access across High Courts. And we aren’t even talking about access to proceedings of District Courts. The study of practitioners in the district courts conducted by DAKSH in three states, Lawyers Experiences During the Covid-19 Pandemic, December 2020, showed how poor this facility is even for advocates.
Live streaming of court proceedings have changed drastically the level of control that courts can exercise over who can view court proceedings. The case for live streaming court proceedings and its legal validity has been dealt with exhaustively in the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Swapnil Tripathi. Draft model rules for the same have been put out for comments recently. Live tweeting of court proceedings are sought after in the absence of widespread public access to video and transcript of proceedings in important cases -- cases that would be better off being live streamed for the public to view for themselves rather than relying on reporting. The frequent outrage over certain comments/submissions reported through live tweeting should be seen in this context.
3. Ease of comprehension - The third aspect of court reporting is ease of comprehension. In spite of many efforts over the years, legal language and court proceedings continue to remain esoteric -- with specialised terms, and procedural nuances that the uninitiated would find challenging to make sense of. Court reporting has the unenviable task of demystifying these for the interested readers. The accreditation process of courts, and calls from some quarters for allowing only journalists with legal background to be permitted to do court reporting, should be seen in this context.
The Supreme Court, at the event for launch of the app for journalists, also announced that the app would contain "indicative notes that would aim to provide concise summaries of landmark judgments in an easy-to-understand format". This is a welcome step, and is in line with international practice.
There is a need to think about what technological developments would mean to the future of court reporting -- from both a supply and demand side. There is a strong possibility that all court proceedings would eventually be publicly broadcast. Courts are going to have lesser control in the days to come on who will report about it. With information about daily proceedings becoming easily available, and opportunities for information arbitrage becoming scarce, there is a need for court reporting to provide insights, patterns, and views that go beyond one case, or one hearing. Courts too will need to increase their capacity to interact with the media.
At the root of this change is the recognition that courts are also public institutions that should be transparent in their functioning and accountable for outcomes. Open courts are an important part of the justice system that engender trust in its functioning. Justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done -- this is a well-known standard in law. The role of the media is key to making justice 'seen' by the public.