On May 5, the Election Commission issued a press statement saying, “The Election Commission was unanimous that before Hon’ble Supreme Court there should not be any prayer for restriction on media reporting.” This was in connection with the ongoing controversy surrounding oral observations by judges of the Madras High Court in connection with the spread of Covid-19 during elections.
On April 26, a Madras High Court Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy pulled up the Election Commission officials for their gross abuse of pandemic protocol, while hearing a petition about Covid related concerns during voting. Bar & Bench quoted the upset Bench orally observing, “You are the only institution that is responsible for the situation today. No action against political parties taking rallies despite every order of the Court. Your election commission should be put up on murder charges probably!”
This oral observation was also reported widely by the news media and this upset the EC. On May 1, during the hearing of the suo moto case where Madras High Court is taking stock of the Covid situation in the state, the Election Commission, upset about the remarks of the bench being “sensationalised” by the media, pleaded for directions. The counsel for EC submitted that it was tasked with a difficult job of conducting elections, and the media should be instructed not to sensationalise.
However, the court was in no mood to deal with this issue considering other issues that needed the court’s attention. “The post-mortem on either count may have to wait, particularly in the light of the immediate measures that may be put in place,” the court said referring to EC’s appeal and Centre’s claim of preparedness.
The EC then moved Supreme Court via a Special Leave Petition but a Bench of Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice MR Shah refused to entertain the plea and observed that unfolding of debate in a court of law is important and the media has a duty to report. The bench also defended the high court judges stating that what is happening on the ground is bound to affect them and such comments are part of a dialogue and should be taken in the right spirit.
Thus, the EC had not once, but twice expressed displeasure at media reportage and sought directions for restrictions to be imposed on reportage of oral observations.
But as per the May 5 statement of the EC, “In the context of involvement of media, the Commission wishes to clarify that it stands sincerely committed to its faith in free media.” It went on to contradict its own prayers before the SC saying, “The Election Commission was unanimous that before Hon’ble Supreme Court there should not be any prayer for restriction on media reporting.” It went one step further and called the media a “natural ally”.
The entire statement may be read here:
Who is calling the shots at the EC?
This rather public example of contradiction showcases yet another instance where the EC appears to be a divided house. As we had previously reported, there appeared to be a significant difference of opinion when it came to submissions made before the court in the media-gag case.
After Sunil Arora retired as Chief Election Commissioner on April 12, he was succeeded by Sushil Chandra. Rajiv Kumar is the Election Commissioner. The third post is yet to be filled. It is not yet known which one of the – Chandra or Kumar – dissented, but as per Indian Express, the submissions in the affidavit before the courts were not unanimous.
The dissenting EC wanted to put his views in a separate affidavit, but this was shot down by the EC that did not file his affidavit with the Madras High Court. But that’s not all. The EC reportedly also ignored his request to attach his separate affidavit to the Special Leave Petition (SLP) filed before the Supreme Court.
In subsequent developments, it has been learnt that the dissenting EC wanted to resign taking personal responsibility for the spread of Covid if the Madras HC so desired and had mentioned as much in his affidavit, urging the court not to punish the institution, but the individual instead.