The excitement surrounding the Supreme Court’s judgment on Aadhaar last week overwhelmed another apex court judgment with equally important long-term implications. This was the decision to permit live streaming of apex court proceedings. This is a significant judgment in more ways than one. Currently, proceedings in court at any level are open to the public but video and audio broadcasting was not permitted. In reality, this has meant that citizens rarely have the opportunity to attend court proceedings because courtrooms overflow with legal and security personnel and reporters. This was the premise on which a law student had filed a suit in the apex court last year. Highlighting the right of access to justice as flowing from the fundamental rights in the Constitution, Justice A M Khanwilkar’s judgment stated live streaming “can epitomise transparency, good governance and accountability, and more importantly, … [transcend] the four walls of the rooms to accommodate a large number of viewers to witness the live Court proceedings”. Transparency, in fact, has been upheld as an important value in itself. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” the judgment observed, adding that “[live-streaming] as an extension of the principle of open courts will ensure that the interface between a court hearing with virtual reality will result in the dissemination of information in the widest possible sense, imparting transparency and accountability to the judicial process”.
This judgment puts India on a par with some of the more progressive legal dispensations in the developed world — in the UK, Canada (a pioneer which allowed such live streaming in 1993), Australia (which permits TV cameras in all courtrooms), New Zealand (which permits it with court approval) and Brazil (which additionally maintains a Twitter account and YouTube channel). Last year, K K Venugopal, attorney general of India, and three senior lawyers had set model guidelines for enabling live streaming, which, among other things, broadly state that matrimonial and sexual assault cases be kept outside the purview of this rule and the regulation and copyright of the broadcast should vest in the court. The judgment also considers this open court principle should eventually extend to the high courts. The principle should extend eventually to the lower courts, the level at which most citizens interface with the judiciary, and where corruption and inefficiency are especially notorious. Indeed, the principle could well be extended to other spheres — such as parliamentary standing committee proceedings, on the lines of US Congress hearings. Even today, for instance, Justice M C Chagla’s investigation of the Haridas Mundhra scandal — independent India’s first financial scam — remains the gold standard of accountability in governance. The inquiry was completed in just 24 days, but the notable point was that the hearings were open to the public. The crowds that gathered to hear the proceedings grew so large that loudspeakers were rigged up so that the people who did not get to enter the courtroom could follow proceedings outside.
Of course, it is possible to argue that transparency does not necessarily lead to better governance. Proof of this counter-factual can be had from Parliament, where live transmission of parliamentary sessions began in a limited form from 1994 onwards and two dedicated channels beam full House proceedings. Despite the fact that citizens can watch the antics of MPs on live, dedicated channels, our people’s representatives have not felt it incumbent on themselves to conduct orderly or even productive sessions — almost every year, parliamentary productivity hits new lows and legislation is passed without a modicum of informed debate. But the judiciary is wont to hold itself to a higher standard as a guardian of democratic principles. In that sense, live streaming of apex court proceedings should be viewed as a good beginning for similar transparency in other arenas of public life.