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NEW YORK: Pakistan’s judges should cease using their contempt of court powers to prevent the media from airing programming critical of the judiciary, the Human Rights Watch said today.

Since Pakistan’s independent judiciary was restored to office in 2009, the judiciary has repeatedly sought to prevent its criticism in the media through threats of contempt of court proceedings, which can bring prison terms, the HRW said in a press release.

The statement from the HRW added that since Oct 2012, the high courts in Islamabad and Lahore have been issuing orders to stop the broadcast of television programs criticising the judiciary.

“Judges sworn to uphold the rule of law should not be using their broad contempt powers to muzzle criticism by the media,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Judges have no special immunity from criticism. Unless they want to be seen as instruments of coercion and censorship, they should immediately revoke these curbs on free expression.”

The group added that recently, courts in Pakistan had openly issued a spate of orders that sought to limit the media’s free expression rights. On Oct 9, Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the IHC had issued a restraining order to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to stop airing criticism of the judiciary on television. The court sought to justify its order by asserting that the media ban was “to ensure that no program containing uncommendable, malicious, and wicked material is telecast by any of the channels in which person of the honourable chief justice of Pakistan and other honourable judges of the superior court are criticised, ridiculed, and defamed.”

The group moreover stated that on Nov 20, the court maintained the stay order preventing the airing of critical programming and demanded a progress report from the Pemra on a television show broadcast Oct 26 on a private channel, which criticised the conduct of Chief Justice Iftikhar. The court also issued a contempt notice to the channel’s chief executive officer, Haji Jan Mohammad.

Earlier on Oct 16, a judge of the Lahore High Court issued a stay order against the airing of “anti-judiciary” programming on television.

Moreover, on Nov 7, the court extended the stay against airing of television programming “intended to scandalise” the judiciary and directed the Pemra to ensure implementation of the order.

The statement added that journalists had told the HRW that major television stations and newspapers were informally advised by judicial authorities that they would be summoned to face contempt of court charges for criticising or commenting unfavourably on judicial decisions or specific judges. In 2010, editors and former editors of several publications faced contempt proceedings for publishing a story alleging misuse of office by the Sindh High Court chief justice, which was averted after their papers apologised publicly to the court.

Moreover, Pakistan’s courts have been facing recurring allegations of judicial overreach into the constitutional domain of the legislature and the executive.

“No branch of government, including the courts, should be immune from public opinion in a democratic society,” Adams said.

“Pakistan’s judges have demonstrated the independence to hold the government accountable. But their credibility will be lost so long as they fight against scrutiny and accountability of the judiciary itself.”

Updated Nov 27, 2012 07:30am

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