ISLAMABAD, Oct 9: Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of Islamabad High Court (IHC) surprised several in the legal fraternity by directing the chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to ensure that nothing defamatory to the superior judges is aired by the television channels in the country.
Justice Siddiqui also ordered the chairman and the federal secretary of information and broadcasting to be present in his court on October 16 to explain the code of conduct evolved to filter scandalous material from going on air.
On that date the honourable judge will resume hearing a petition that seeks restraints on the media houses, apprehending that the broadcasters would project the judges negatively.
While no citizen was above the law, including the judges, Justice Siddiqui said that any person aggrieved by any action or order of a sitting judge can file a reference against the judge in the Supreme Judicial Council under Article 209 of the Constitution.
But the former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association Asma Jahangir likened these directives from the Islamabad High Court to those issued by martial law regimes in the past.
“Nobody should be afraid of the truth. But it seems some want to hide facts and not face the truth,” she told Dawn, adding that the petitioner should have named the representative bodies of the electronic and print media as respondents.
The incumbent president of the association, Yasin Azad, felt the same. “The petitioner is not the aggrieved person and the court is yet to decide the matter of maintainability of the petition,” he said.
“I think that the petition is against the spirit of freedom of expression,” Mr Azad said.
Advocate Mohammad Akram Sheikh, counsel for the petitioner Nadeem Ahmed, a Karachi-based lawyer, told Dawn that a restraining order by the court “will discourage airing of preplanned defamatory programme against judges and the superior courts”.
Former Chief Justice of Sindh High Court Wajihuddin Ahmed appreciated the “wise directions” as, instead of taking any coercive action, Justice Siddiqui asked the Pemra chairman to exercise his authority.
Mr Wajihuddin said the chairman “can stop airing of defamatory material” as Pemra rules empower him to cancel the licence of a broadcaster which airs contemptuous or scandalous material.
“The government also can force the electronic and print media to follow their own codes of conduct which restrain them from airing or publishing scandalous material not only against the judges but the common man as well,” he added.
On the other hand, Justice (retired) Tariq Mehmood, does not think that chairman Pemra can stop defamatory material from being aired.
He told Dawn that “the private television channel would never seek his approval before broadcasting any pre-planned programme”.
It may be possible for the Pemra chairman to fire a restraining order to a broadcaster on noticing a scandalous remark on it during a live broadcast, he said. “But controlling the content and forcing certain ‘dos and don’ts’ on any channel is beyond his capacity.”
“We need to examine the root cause of this problem, which is of course is the executive and judiciary conflict,” he said, adding that “the executive thinks that the judiciary interferes in its domain and tries to exercise its powers”.
“No doubt the incompetency of executive invites the judiciary for suggesting measures for improvements but it should be done in a more balanced manner,” the retired judge said.
Advocate Akram Shaikh, counsel for the petitioner, however is intent upon initiating “contempt of court proceedings if the Pemra chairman failed to stop airing of defamatory contents” in a TV broadcast.
“No one can conduct a slanderous press conference against the Chief Justice of Pakistan, or any of the judges of superior courts, as under the Constitution the relevant forum for their trial is the Supreme Judicial Council not television channels,” he said.
“If anyone has tangible evidence against the Chief Justice of Pakistan, I request him to share it with me and I would file a reference against CJP in the SJC on my own, without cost,” he added.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Counsel Akram Sheikh, contended that the freedom of expression granted by Article 19 of the Constitution was subject “to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to the contempt of court or incitement to an offence”.
He apprehended “a new round of rumours and attacks against the Chief Justice of Pakistan through another live press conference”, which, he said “would be so nasty that it will leave Chief Justice of Pakistan no choice except to resign and go home”.