Ban on anti-judiciary speeches
The Supreme Court (SC) taking prompt notice of media reports that a Lahore High Court (LHC) bench has banned the airing of alleged anti-judiciary speeches on television channels has categorically refuted such reportage terming it as ‘Fake News’. It had been reported in almost all the media that the LHC bench was hearing petitions challenging the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA’s) failure to stop broadcasting of alleged anti-judiciary speeches by PML-N leaders, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz. The court directed PEMRA to decide within 15 days all pending complaints regarding the matter. It also told PEMRA to strictly monitor the TV channels to ensure no material likely to incite hatred or contempt against the judiciary is broadcast.
The hearing in the LHC produced some interesting comments from the bench. Justice Syed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi objected to ‘every Tom, Dick and Harry’ without knowledge of the law commenting on judicial verdicts on TV. He wanted such discussions limited to persons with knowledge of judicial matters. What the honourable Justice perhaps failed to realize is that his preference would inadvertently restrict the right of freedom of expression of citizens, who have every right to have views and comment on what the courts hand down. Of course all such comments, whether by specialists in the field or ordinary citizens (including anchors and analysts) have to remain within the parameters of legitimate discourse. While discussion and even criticism of judicial verdicts is kosher in any democratic society, the conduct of judges or bringing into disrepute the judiciary as a whole is unacceptable. However, and with the greatest of respect for His Lordships, the terrain on which this controversy is playing out has many facets. The general perception is that the judiciary is indulging in overreach, intervention in areas outside its remit, and peppering all such steps with fairly free remarks from the bench and in public. It is not for nothing that the time proved concept of judicial restraint is preferred. It allows judges to speak, but only through their judgements. In a free-for-all kind of proliferation of media, a characteristic not only of Pakistan but the whole world today, even the most innocuous remark from the bench acquires a life of its own on TV tickers and banner headlines. Even if the remarks are to the point, they unnecessarily drag the judiciary into the public (political) space where its respect and dignity goes abegging. As far as the alleged anti-judiciary speeches on display since the ousting of Nawaz Sharif is concerned, the courts have powers of contempt of court. But as Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar remarked in the SC, the judiciary is exercising utmost restraint in this matter. Judicial restraint and spare use of contempt powers serve the judiciary well. They help avoid controversy, sustain and even enhance the respect and dignity of the bench, and thereby create an atmosphere where everyone feels obliged to accept the judiciary’s verdicts, even if they do not agree with them.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in its annual report has lamented the shrinking space for freedom of expression and rights, as has a civil society moot. In such an atmosphere, it becomes even more important to draw and adhere to the line between legitimate criticism of verdicts and attempting to besmirch the respect and dignity of the judiciary, without which no democratic system can function healthily. PEMRA remains a toothless wonder, not the least because its attempts to regulate the electronic media have often fallen foul of stay orders by the courts. At present, it is also a headless wonder, since the previous chairman was removed for not fulfilling the criteria for his appointment and no new chief has been appointed since. Now the government has revealed before the SC that a seven-member committee has been formed to seek an appropriate appointee afresh. On the court’s directive, Minister of State for Information Marryum Aurangzeb’s name has been replaced by the Information Secretary as the court felt she may not be able to spare time for the committee’s deliberations. Her removal may also, as the court hinted, have something to do with her defence of the Sharifs in their toil and trouble in the cases they face. The judiciary should be careful while defending its respect and dignity that it does not stray into the area of judicial or any other form of censorship. As Justice Azmat Saeed of the SC remarked, an independent media (and therefore public opinion) is a sine qua non for the independence of the judiciary. At the same time all other players, particularly those aggrieved by the courts’ verdicts, must also exercise restraint within the parameters of fair comment and not stray into disrespecting judges or the judiciary per se.