New Delhi: The Supreme Court Tuesday laid down a constitutional principle where aggrieved parties can seek from appropriate court the postponement of the publication of court hearings and a decision taken on a case-by-case basis.
The court, however, refrained from framing broad guidelines for reporting of sub-judice court matters, saying it cannot be done "across the board."
The bench observed that freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right under the Constitution and the journalists should understand the `lakshman rekha` so that they do not cross the line of contempt.
A five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia said it was laying down the constitutional principle which will allow the aggrieved parties to seek from appropriate court the postponement of the publication of court hearings.
The bench said the concerned court will decide the question of postponement of reporting court proceedings on case-by-case basis.
"We are not framing guidelines but we have laid down constitutional principle and appropriate writ courts will decide when the postponement order has to be passed on case-by -case basis," the bench also comprising justices D K Jain, S S Nijjar, Ranjana Prakash Desai and J S Khehar said.
"Hence, guidelines on media reporting cannot be framed across the board," the bench said.
While propounding the doctrine of postponement of publication of court proceedings, the bench said it is a preventive measure and not a prohibitive and punitive measure.
It further said that temporary ban on publication of court proceedings is necessary to maintain balance between freedom of speech and fair trial for proper administration of justice.
The bench said the postponement of publication of court proceedings would be required where there is a substantial risk of prejudicing the trial and administration of justice.
Further the CJI, who read the judgement, said reasonable restrictions on reporting of court proceedings were needed for societal interest and this doctrine of postponement is one of "neutralising technique".
The apex court has undertaken the exercise of framing guidelines after receiving complaints of breach of confidentiality during the hearing of a dispute between Sahara Group and market regulator SEBI.
The issue of breach of confidentiality came up when certain documents regarding the dispute between Sahara and SEBI were leaked to the media.
However, once the hearing had started from March 27, the court had expanded its ambit and gave opportunity to others who in the recent past had felt aggrieved due to the publication and broadcast of sub-judice matters.
The constitution bench relied on a catena of judgements from foreign countries like United States of America, England, Canada, Germany, Australia and New Zealand along with the judgements of Indian courts to arrive at a conclusion that postponement of publication of court proceedings in certain cases was necessary to strengthen the balance between free speech and fair trial for proper administration of justice.
It clarified that the order on postponement of publication of court proceedings has to be passed by the writ court subject to the twin test of necessity and proportionality.
The postponement of publication has to be for short duration without disturbing the essence of the proceeding.
While observing that the postponement of publication cannot be viewed as punitive measure, the bench said such steps are necessary to protect the journalists from venturing into the contempt area.
The bench had reserved its judgement on May 3 after 17 days of hearing.
During earlier hearings, the bench had permitted all parties to present their views and subsequently the Press Council of India, the Editors Guild of India, the National Broadcasters Association and some national dailies and individual reporters had argued in the case opposing any regulation on media reporting.
While majority of the parties were of the view that the apex court did not have inherent powers to lay guidelines on the issue which falls in the domain of legislature, some had favoured guidelines to protect the interest of the litigants.
The bench had said it wanted to have a proper balance between Article 21 (Right to Life and Liberty) and Article 19 (1)(a)(Freedom of Speech and Expression) of the Constitution.
It had observed that its intervention is required to safeguard administration of justice in the absence of any specific law to regulate legal reporting and had came out with the idea of temporary ban on sub-judice matters which was opposed by journalist groups.