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Outside the courtroom

July 18, 2017

INSIDE the courtroom, the absence of television cameras and microphones and the presence of judges means that grandstanding by petitioners or respondents is rare. The court is a forum for decision-making in light of the law and Constitution, not a place for political posturing. Outside the courtroom, however, a very different and damaging spectacle has unfolded in the Panama Papers case. Yesterday, the pre- and post-hearing theatrics and politicking were on display again as politicians and lawyers jostled behind a makeshift podium facing cameras, microphones and reporters. It is a political right to comment on court proceedings and defend a particular point of view. What is problematic is the backdrop: the Supreme Court building and with it the reputation of the court as a place above the political fray. The spectacle outside the court is undermining one of the very few strong democratic institutions the country has; it must stop.

This newspaper firmly supports free speech, especially in the political domain. Too often, political dissent has been muzzled in the name of national security or institutional integrity. Many of the speeches and comments made outside the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case would be routine for news conferences and television studios. But just as there are norms to be followed inside parliament, where speech is protected and proceedings are immune from judicial scrutiny, there are norms that apply to the Supreme Court. In a polity where democratic institutions are weak, the Supreme Court has established itself as a non-partisan institution. It is for that very reason that all sides in the Panama Papers dispute have agreed on only two things: the Supreme Court is the right forum to decide the matter and the court’s decision will be respected. However, the polemics and theatrics outside the court are threatening to tarnish its independent reputation and reduce its stature among the public. That must not be allowed to happen.

A straightforward solution would be for the political class and the legal community to themselves recognise the damage they are potentially inflicting, and tone down the rhetoric on the court’s premises. After the political fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is decided, there will undoubtedly be further legal disputes with national consequences that politicians are party to — protecting the court’s reputation now is not just the right thing to do, it is politically sensible too. But if politicians and lawyers insist on continuing with the spectacle outside the court, the Supreme Court itself may want to consider issuing directions against the practice. The court has demonstrated enormous patience so far and gone out of its way to accommodate the diverse, and often contradictory, demands made of it by the political class. Restraint was a sensible approach to begin with, but it may have reached the point where it is no longer effective. The court’s premises must not become a political circus.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2017