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MEDIA EYE: COURTING THE MEDIA

Updated March 04, 2018

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Since the rise to power of former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the birth of judicial activism, there has hardly been a day when court proceedings have not featured prominently in the media, often grabbing top headlines and dominating the discourse in TV talk shows for weeks on end.

In the past, it took a Justice Munir, Moulvi Mushtaq or Anwarul Haq for the courts to figure significantly in the news but, within days, the story would slide off the headlines and even from memory — even as we found ourselves reeling in the aftermath of their decisions long after they were made.

Through the mid-1980s to the 1990s, one saw a greater share of courts in headlines whenever the dismissal of a civilian government and the dissolution of an elected parliament by a president armed with Article 58-2(b) — an addition to the constitution by an autocratic head of state, Gen Ziaul Haq — was challenged. But once the decisions came, the story faded away.

It seems not a day now passes without court proceedings being a mainstay of the news. But increasingly, the media itself is becoming a part of judicial headlines

Interestingly enough, while Article 58-2(b) remained part of the constitution from 1985 to 1997 and then from 2003 to 2010 (reintroduced to the constitution by General Musharraf as he moved the country from his autocratic rule to a quasi-civilian set-up), a troika comprising the president, the army chief and the prime minister was said to rule the country.

In the case of Zia and Musharraf, the office of the president and army chief was held by the same individual so the power was concentrated in their own hands. However, in other periods, the situation reverted to the troika exercising power.

The scene today is utterly different as courts send home prime ministers, block civil service and police appointments and even throw out commercial contracts that carry sovereign guarantees at considerable cost to the country — as is being discovered in the Reko Diq and the Turkish floating power house cases.

But the military appears immune from ever being in the dock. Therefore, following the cleansing of Article 58-2(b) from the constitution, the elected civilian chief executive is still not all-powerful and governs in concert with the army chief and the chief justice as other members of the troika.

It appears equally true that at least two members of this troika at any point in time are not content with the limits on their authority and thus friction ensues between them. Matters take a graver term if the unhappy two decide to join hands, even if this is done tacitly.

While these issues seem enough to keep the courts in the news in perpetuity, now the media often makes headlines by being present in the courts itself. Ironically, the media’s presence in the dock on occasion has nothing to do with its content.

Left: Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar; (right) TV anchorperson Shahid Masood was summoned to court to provide evidence for his claims regarding the case of Zainab Amin
Left: Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar; (right) TV anchorperson Shahid Masood was summoned to court to provide evidence for his claims regarding the case of Zainab Amin

Just look at the case of the Bol network owner Shoaib Shaikh, who was summoned by the Supreme Court recently because his other business and mainstay, Axact — a company that calls itself the biggest software company in the game — was at the centre of a controversy.

The controversy was triggered by an investigative story in The New York Times in 2015 by their ace reporter Declan Walsh which laid out evidence to state that Axact’s main business was issuing fake degrees via spurious, non-existent online universities.

Thousands of their call centre employees were peddling tens of thousands of fake degrees from dozens of online universities which existed only in name and had raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

The scandal broke after the owner had set up the Bol media group and offered staggering top-dollar incentives to attract some of the biggest names in Pakistani media. (In the interest of full disclosure I must admit I was invited by the owners too, met them and was offered decent remuneration, but gratefully said no for I felt something was amiss.)

The scandal came to the fore when a disgruntled former employee decided to tell the world the details of the degree scam and how those who bought the degrees were then subjected to multiple extortionate demands in one name or the other.

Axact CEO Shoaib Shaikh arrives at court
Axact CEO Shoaib Shaikh arrives at court

Once the news broke, Axact was shut down, thousands of blank degree forms belonging to bizarrely named universities (to mimic real universities) were seized and the owners were arrested. The yet-to-be-born Bol TV network was soon hit by the fallout.

Nation and Nawai Waqt group’s anchor Matiullah Jan is currently before the Islamabad High Court as well. All these appearances have been on summon/cases under the Contempt of Court law, as the courts have found news stories or TV discussions objectionable.

The past, though, is another country. That was 2015, this is 2018. Piles of cash (said to be in the millions of dollars), muscle and powerful backers in the security establishment meant that Bol TV has now joined the illustrious ranks of the news TV channels and it is business as usual for Axact, too.

But the international media continues to be the bane of Axact-Bol’s life. Recently, the BBC and Canada’s national broadcaster CBC carried stories regarding renewed fake degree scams by the company, bringing the matter to the attention of the chief justice who summoned the supremo Shoaib Shaikh. The Axact-Bol owner arrived in the Supreme Court in the company of senior journalists of his media group.

The honourable court put Shaikh on the exit control list (ECL) and ordered subordinate courts to complete his trial within a stipulated period. However, on the intervention of two ‘senior journalists’ who requested the chief justice not to put Shaikh on the ECL, the court rescinded its earlier order, removing his name from the ECL.

If the Supreme Court takes active interest in the case, perhaps it will see conclusion for it has gone nowhere in the past due to factors such as threats, intimidation of prosecutors forcing them to withdraw from the cases, and a judge confessing to having taken a five-million-rupee bribe to acquit.

The offices of Axact in Karachi
The offices of Axact in Karachi

The Axact-Bol case is unique since the company’s core business, and not its media content, has brought its owner before the court.

Then there is the well-known TV personality Shahid Masood who will be vindicated or face stark humiliation once the ‘Joint Investigation Team’ (JIT) set up to ascertain his claims on his show submits its report.

If you remember, this anchor came up with the bizarrely infamous ‘35 punctures’ line to claim that the last general elections had been rigged in PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s favour by then Punjab caretaker chief minister (and current PCB chief) Najam Sethi.

Sethi did send a defamation notice to the anchor but one isn’t sure what became of it, as Pakistani defamation laws seem very lax and one cannot find even a few examples of courts awarding damages.

In any case, that ‘35 punctures’ claim died its own death after the Supreme Court found no evidence of mass rigging in the last election, having looked into the issue at some length. But Masood was not to be dissuaded.

When the tragic rape and murder of the young Zainab Amin happened in Kasur, the anchor claimed the impoverished manual worker Imran (who has now been sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court) was not alone in his crime.

As per Masood’s claim, Imran represented an international child pornography gang on the ‘dark net’ and had at least 37 bank accounts to his name. The anchor also alleged amounts totalling over a million dollars in some accounts and alleged that Imran had influential backers, including a minister.

After his programme was aired, Masood was summoned to present his evidence to the Supreme Court, where he was warned that there would be grave consequences if his claim were not correct but the anchor insisted persisted, prima facie, having little to support his charges.

The court-constituted JIT is said to have finalised its report, which is likely to be submitted within a matter of a few days. More than anyone else, one can be sure, the anchor waits with bated breath. If the JIT report findings are against him it would not just be very embarrassing for him but he may face graver penalties.

Apart from a number of appearances in the Supreme Court, including one by its reclusive chief Mir Shakilur Rehman, the Jang-Geo group’s journalists and senior executives have also been in the dock in the Islamabad High Court (IHC).

Nation and Nawai Waqt group’s anchor Matiullah Jan is currently before the IHC as well. All these appearances have been on summons/cases under the Contempt of Court law, as the courts have found news stories or TV discussions objectionable.

The content is varied: in one case the court has taken exception to a news regarding the ISI’s alleged role in the JIT into the Panama Papers case carried by Jang-The News; in another, to a discussion on Valentine’s Day on Geo TV.

Whichever way these cases conclude, we are likely to see more and more of the media in the courts. And with various interested parties spinning and pushing their own agenda in the coming days — including circulation of fake news in the media — courts will also likely feature more and more in the news.

One can only hope that these appearances contribute to a vibrant democratic order with more free speech, rather than lead to curbs on expression.

The writer is former editor of Dawn.
He tweets @abbasnasir59

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 4th, 2018