A Supreme Court bench, while wrapping up a suo motu notice on Tuesday, strongly admonished media outlets for what it termed the misrepresentation of the facts of a Lahore High Court (LHC) order from a day earlier, in which the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) had been directed to enforce a ban on the broadcast of anti-judiciary speeches on television under Article 19 of the Constitution.
Earlier today, after examining whether the order suppressed the right to free speech, the Supreme Court had summoned a record of complaints filed with Pemra against speeches made by PML-N leaders.
The court had also summoned the attorney general (AG), the advocates general of all four provinces, and the LHC's registrar over the matter.
AG Ashtar Ausaf had subsequently appeared before the bench and presented the LHC's order to it.
"I want to read out the LHC's decision in court," he began.
"Congratulations. You may be the first person to have actually read the decision," Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed retorted wryly.
"Everyone has an opinion on what the speech says," the chief justice observed. "It has been reported that the Lahore High Court has banned [Maryam Nawaz and Nawaz Sharif's] speeches," he continued.
"Where in the verdict does it say that speeches [from the two leaders] have been banned?" the chief justice asked the AG.
"Where is the Pemra chairman?" he then asked, before reprimanding the regulator's chief for showing up late. "Read the order [in his presence]," he directed the AG.
"The high court has ordered Pemra to stop speeches against the judges and judiciary from being aired," the AG read out.
"Read Articles 19 and 68 of the Constitution," the chief justice said. "The court has only ordered Pemra to act under the two articles."
"What has Pemra done under Article 19 of the Constitution?" he asked.
Article 19 of the 1973 Constitution, while allowing all citizens freedom of speech, also says that the freedom is "subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, or incitement to an offence".
"Why didn't Pemra take action [on anti-judiciary speeches]?" the chief justice asked the Pemra chairman, who could only manage an unsatisfactory excuse in response.
"We issued notices to channels," he replied.
"If notices are all that you have to issue, what is the point?" the chief justice retorted. "Do you have no other powers? What action have you taken under them?" he asked.
"You've had complaints pending since 2017. What action have you taken on them as the regulator?" Justice Ijazul Ahsan added.
"Does somebody need to tell Pemra to do its job?" Justice Saeed quipped, addressing the Pemra chairman.
"The order issued was something else, and it was reported as something else. Somebody purposefully ran fake news," he observed.
"This was done in a coordinated manner. Can the Federal Investigation Agency be asked to investigate the matter?" he asked.
"What action has Pemra taken on fake news? The news was twisted, what did Pemra do?" the chief justice added while addressing the Pemra chairman.
"Who will investigate this matter? Who manufactured this story and forwarded it to the media? It would still have been believable had one channel misreported it. I can't believe that court reporters could have filed this story," he continued. "Who had the real story twisted?"
"And how is it that Nawaz Sharif's counsel is representing Pemra in this case?" he said, turning to Advocate Salman Akram Raja.
"We will issue a notice to you and suspend your licence. How can you represent Pemra in this case? Isn't this a clear conflict of interest?" he asked.
To this, Raja clarified that he had been representing Pemra for quite some time.
"You also represent the PML-N and you also appear on TV to comment [on various cases]," the chief justice responded.
"I apologise and will withdraw my power of attorney," Raja responded. "I only represented Pemra because I have been representing them in the past.
The court subsequently wrapped up the suo motu notice, noting that the LHC's order did not seem to violate fundamental rights and would therefore be upheld.
"The impression was given that the court had ordered Maryam Nawaz and Nawaz Sharif to be taken off air," it observed. "It was implied that the freedom of speech had been curtailed, when the court had only issued an order under Article 19 of the Constitution."
"This is disrespect of the courts," the chief justice noted. "The judiciary was attacked once before, and it has been attacked once again," he said.
"We do not need any security and protection from the state," he continued. "God willing, the people of this country will protect us."
"What will be achieved by cursing us every day? We had women abusing the judiciary on the doors of the Supreme Court the other day. I have been keeping a close eye on everything. Who sent these women to the Supreme Court?" he asked while wrapping up proceedings.
Clarification: In a news item on April 16, it was erroneously reported that the LHC had banned "anti-judiciary" speeches by Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and other PML-N leaders. The error is regretted.