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When the judiciary silenced the media

Updated 24 Aug, 2017 01:10pm
Illustration by Rohail Safdar Munshi
Illustration by Rohail Safdar Munshi

The Panamagate scandal is arguably the most extensively covered single subject in Pakistan’s media history. The country’s fiercely competitive media has been feeding the hunger for detail on a scandal that has captured public imagination like little before it.

This race for news, views and opinions has landed the country’s largest media group, Jang/Geo, in the Supreme Court, which has initiated contempt proceedings against it. The charge against the group is that it ostensibly overstepped the line in making claims about the court’s role in overseeing the investigation of crimes against the family of Nawaz Sharif who has since been found guilty and stripped of his prime ministership and membership of the National Assembly.

The court issued a contempt notice to the printer and publisher of daily The News and admonished its reporter Ahmad Noorani for calling Justice Ejaz Afzal in connection with a story that claimed the apex court had directed Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) to look after the affairs of the joint investigation team (JIT) formed to probe the alleged shady business dealings of the Sharif family.

In addition, the same team of printer, publisher and reporter was asked for an explanation by the court for publishing another story, a day before the JIT issued its findings, claiming the investigators had found Sharif innocent of the charges against him. The reporter in this case also tried to approach a Supreme Court judge for his views on the case.

It so happened that the JIT found Sharif guilty as charged and recommended the court to proceed against him. The printer, publisher and reporter apologised for this report and for approaching the judge for comments. The accused trio also reported to summons about the ISI case and presented themselves in court. Besides apologising for the report they sought further time to file detailed written replies. They were given till August 22 to respond and appear before the court again for a decision on contempt.

In a country like Pakistan, even the bravest of media has to tread cautiously the thin line that separates its essential mandate of being the guardian of public interest and the forbidding reality of the overbearing security establishment and judicial complex with their questionable historical roles in shaping the country’s politics.

For a judicial exercise that sought to force transparency into the ruling family’s businesses, the conduct of the JIT was itself shrouded in secrecy. It was only fair for the media to try and decipher how it worked, particularly in light of the accusations made daily by the defendants of the Sharifs about the alleged intimidation and coercion by the JIT members.

While the reporter may have overstepped the line in approaching a judge for comments in a sub judice matter, it is difficult to concur with the court to a harsh line of action against the media for an act undertaken on behalf of the public’s right to know on a matter that affects them directly. Claiming ISI’s role in JIT and its link with the court was hardly a stretch of credulity when an ISI representative was a formal member of the JIT appointed by the court itself.

The reporter claims to have approached both the security and judicial establishments for comments on his story but his contention was neither confirmed nor denied. A formal denial of his contention would have taken the sting out of it. Media should have the margin to err on the side of public interest otherwise the right to know, guaranteed under Article 19A of the Constitution, is diminished and institutional interests of the power elite become entrenched.

Now that the Panama verdict is out, it is public property; it can be commented upon and the media should not be punished for it. Even the mistakes made during reporting on it have lost relevance, especially since they have already been pointed out and accepted. Respect for the judiciary should not trump the freedom of the news media.

This was originally published in the Herald's August 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.