Days after a stinging rap from the judiciary, the Election Commission on Friday moved the Madras High Court, seeking to restrain the media from reporting oral observations of judges made on its role in conducting elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a plea the court refused.
Comments of murder charges against ECI officials and the institution being solely responsible for the surge in COVID-19 cases had caused great damage and it had tarnished the EC's image, its counsel contended.
The first bench refused to restrain the media, both electronic and print, from publishing the oral observations of the judges relating the role of EC in holding elections to four states and the Union Territory of Puducherry in the country during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Let us leave that (matter) at it," was the reply of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy when the matter with regard to lapses in procuring COVID-19 vaccines, providing beds and ventilators and the alleged diversion of oxygen cylinders to other states came up again on Friday.
The court had taken up the matter on its own. "The post-mortem on either count may have to wait, particularly in the light of immediate measures that may be put in place," the CJ quipped when the EC senior counsel moved the court with the prayer to restrain the media from sensationalising the issue.
It was a very difficult job to hold the elections during these difficult times. Based on the observations of the courts, certain people have approached the police with complaints and the latter had filed FIRs too, the EC's counsel said and prayed for some sort of protection.
"The courts concerned would take care of such frivolous complaints being filed against the ECI... let's not play a blame game," the CJ said. The court had taken up the matter not to issue directions by presuming itself as an expert on the subject of handling COVID-19, but the focus was to make the governments act on the basis of experts' advice.
"We are the first to accept that we may not be qualified to take a call," the CJ added. Additional Solicitor General R Sankaranarayanan told the bench that till December last year, the COVID-19 curve was flattening and in January it was fine. Only thereafter, the surge was noticed in Maharashtra and Kerala. A high-level team was dispatched to Kerala to aid public health interventions for COVID-19 management. The Union government has done whatever was needed, the ASG said.
The ECI sought a direction to the press and visual media, which had reported the oral comments to issue a clarification. It also wanted a direction to the police to not register any case on the basis of criminal complaints being filed against EC officials pursuant to the oral observations.
The Madras High Court had on Monday castigated the Election Commission over the COVID-19 second wave in the country, holding it 'singularly' responsible for the spread, called it "the most irresponsible institution" and even said its officials may be booked under murder charges.
The EC allowing political parties to take out rallies and meetings had led to the spread of the pandemic, the court had said.