Media ban on convicted and under-trial politicians: At best presumptuous and at worst draconian

Journalistic recklessness should be regulated but not on the basis that journalism is always reckless.
Updated 11 Jul, 2019 03:22pm
ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan chairs a meeting of the federal cabinet on Tuesday. — APP
ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan chairs a meeting of the federal cabinet on Tuesday. — APP

The federal cabinet this week proposed to block media coverage and interview of politicians who are either convicts or under-trial prisoners, and directed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to fulfill its “responsibility” and do the same.

Pemra’s legal mechanisms usually impose restrictions on subject matters and issues, and not certain classes of individuals. Much of Pemra's laws (eg Pemra 2015 Code of Conduct) relate to ensuring that a licensee, amongst other things, airs content in an objective manner and does not air content that is deemed to be obscene, against Islamic values, inciting hatred, justifying violence or containing aspersions against the judiciary or the armed forces.

Traditionally, the sub judice doctrine mostly bars coverage of cases that are before a court of law. The doctrine is primarily meant to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial, as media houses often report on more than the events that transpire or are admissible in court. This includes dilating on stories from witnesses who are not supposed to testify, examining other evidence that has not or will not be presented before a court, disseminating information which may influence future witnesses or even disrupt the decision-making process of judges.

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While the media is legally not allowed to engage in dissecting sub judice matters, imposing blanket ban on media coverage on politicians facing trial or convicted politicians, even if such reporting is analytical and factual, prejudices the media’s right to freedom of speech and the public’s right to access to information.

Laws already exist to bar anyone, let alone politicians, from discussing matters that are sub judice. Article 204 of the Constitution empowers the Supreme Court or a high court to punish any person who "does anything which tends to prejudice the determination of a matter pending before a Court."

Clause 4 (3) of the Pemra Code of Conduct bars airing of sub judice matters which tend to prejudice determination by a court. However, such content is allowed to be aired if it is done in an informative and objective manner. In fact, the Supreme Court has lauded this clause for striking a delicate balance between freedom of speech and the right to information (Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution) with fundamental right to be dealt with in accordance with the law (Article 4 of the Constitution) and the right to fair trial and due process (Article 10A of the Constitution).

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The United Kingdom's 1981 Contempt of Court Act also bars media publications that significantly discuss pending legal proceedings to the extent that justice is endangered to the point of influencing a court proceeding. However, a publication is considered to pose such a threat only if it creates a “substantial” risk in the adjudication.

This is why a blanket ban proposal on coverage of politicians facing trial and convicted politicians is problematic. It is perhaps based on the assumption that the airing of such content is only done by the media to A) glorify such politicians, sans objective discourse and/or B) discuss the merits of the politicians’ case before a court only, and not any other topics. This is at best presumptuous, and at worst draconian. The Supreme Court has held that by virtue of the Code of Conduct, great trust is given to the media and the journalist community that they will provide objective information about pending proceedings, while taking precautions that they do not pass subjective or prejudicial comments.

Pemra’s existing Code of Conduct is more measured than the cabinet proposal. For instance, the Code of Conduct does impose a ban on airing statements on a class of individual (ie members of proscribed organisations, as defined in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997). However, even that ban is not a blanket and all-encompassing one, as airing of such information is allowed if it exposes the said proscribed organisation's ideology and does not glorify it.

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The rhetoric that politicians’ interviews and/or media coverage will always be prejudicial to the public at large is in fact discrediting the media’s ability to analytically disseminate the news and taking away the public’s ability to absorb such information according to its own free will.

In the international sphere, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has tried a number of media-related incitement cases (eg TV channels and print platforms distributing suspects’, terrorists’ and criminals’ interviews for the public). In all these cases, the ECHR carefully examined on a case-by-case basis as to whether media reporting was done to glorify criminals/terrorists (eg by providing a platform for preaching hate and violence), or whether such reporting was done in spirit to inform the public at large about the perils of such ideology.

The cabinet proposal, if effectuated, carries a serious risk of being unlawful. Journalistic recklessness should be regulated, but it should not be regulated on the basis that journalism is always reckless.

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Ali Chughtai is a lawyer and can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (44) Closed

Jul 11, 2019 03:11pm
Good decision
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Jul 11, 2019 03:38pm
Pakistani media is immature therefore guidelines needed to improve the journalism and the way they behave on talk shows and other important discussions.
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Hu Zhi Yuan Dr
Jul 11, 2019 03:41pm
"And journalism itself has changed. News organizations and some journalists have transformed from their traditional role as watchdogs of power into institutions of power themselves with an ability, indeed, a susceptibility, to abuse that power."
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Jul 11, 2019 03:43pm
A very logical decision to deal with the flawed political players.
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Syed Fasih Ur Rahman
Jul 11, 2019 03:46pm
good decision, law must be implemented , this is defined rule in PEMRA 2015 .
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Jul 11, 2019 03:52pm
Very good, this needs to be done .
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Jul 11, 2019 04:00pm
Don't like putting a ban, but coverage of politicians certainly need to be toned down a lot. Current news prodcast make it feel like politicians are Pakistan and everyone else is insignificant. Their coverage should be reduced by at least 75% and things relevant, and helpful to people should be given more time. It is the biggest reason I dont watch TV anymore, that if all there is to watch is political drama and ads.
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Jul 11, 2019 04:14pm
This pti gov wants to gag all the voices which are against it. You should only hear fabricated, one sided facts.
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Jul 11, 2019 04:33pm
Unfortunately under trial and convicted use media to start a media trial in political overtones to resolve their cases instead of going to court to get justice. Media must make disclaimers for paid advertisements by convicts and under trial. Unfortunately a block of media is not following the established national guidelines.
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Jul 11, 2019 04:58pm
Its time media concentrated on development works rather than corrupt looters like NS and AAZ families...
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Jul 11, 2019 05:18pm
Good decision
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M. Mushtaq Ahmed
Jul 11, 2019 05:33pm
Please give me one example where under trial person is interviewed and aired on electronic media.
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Javed Qamer Engineer Washington DC
Jul 11, 2019 05:41pm
Its high time that these crooks are put behind bars and kept away from media. Only in Pakistan are crooks allowed to give statements.
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Javed Qamer Engineer Washington DC
Jul 11, 2019 05:42pm
Its long overdue
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Asif Mujtaba
Jul 11, 2019 05:49pm
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Jul 11, 2019 05:50pm
Good decision!
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Ahmed Mobeen
Jul 11, 2019 06:09pm
very good and exemplary
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Saif Zulfiqar
Jul 11, 2019 06:28pm
These convicted and under trial politcians were just criticsing PTI saying these trials are victimisation, where as these politcians have bankurupt the treasury and claiming they are as innocents as new born babies.
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Zafar Ahmed
Jul 11, 2019 07:05pm
Media should call all convicted & under trial prisoners on TV talk show & interviews !
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Mindshare, TX
Jul 11, 2019 07:14pm
The first step in right direction.
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Jul 11, 2019 07:36pm
Great decision by PTI government
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Jul 11, 2019 08:11pm
I absolutely agree with government's decision. No glorification of criminals on TV.
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Jul 11, 2019 08:29pm
How Mariam’s or Zardari’s interview affect anybody. She showed some videos which if true then show to the people what is going behind the scene illegally. So, instead of banning, videos should have been sent immediately for authenticity check and take action. But instead until today nothing has been done. This actually is showing that those videos are factual.
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Saeed Akhtar
Jul 11, 2019 09:32pm
Good step towards the bad politics in PK. Where only money talks.
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Jul 11, 2019 10:13pm
Shame on IK govt - he himself prospered under a relatively free media and his thanks is not evident.
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Jul 11, 2019 10:30pm
Mia Musharraf controlled media and now IK is following to control opposition. Media is the only source of information to public, right or wrong public can draw their conclusion.
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Jul 12, 2019 12:15am
Considering what's happening in the media over the last several months I totally support this proposal. These goons should not be on the media taunting the institutions that are trying to rid corruption from the society and the people of Pakistan whom they have shamelessly looted.
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S.M Riaz
Jul 12, 2019 12:17am
Foolish idea. If under-trial convicts are allowed to go live, then, of what use is the legal idea of "subjudice matter". On one hand, politicians protest media trials on the other hand, instead, of presenting their arguments in court, they prefer media. What a hypocrisy!
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F Khan
Jul 12, 2019 12:24am
You do not sleep in the night and next day you become a diabetic, nature gives you enough and continuous signs and symptoms for long before that.A government does not become fascist in a day.These kind of small repeated things are taking the government to that path.
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Jul 12, 2019 12:46am
Government uses the media first to defame the opponents and do their media trial but this weak government can not stand the opposition doing the same. Shame.
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Ahsan Gul
Jul 12, 2019 12:47am
It is not journalism or a government’s draconian rule to ban convicted or under trial people’s interviews. Majority of our so called politicians have become rich in a few years that other educated people can only dream off. These Felons want public’s sympathies and support as their accountability process is getting closer.
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Jul 12, 2019 01:32am
This decision protected Karachi from conspiracies of alltaf Hussain. A very good decision to counter more Mir jaffers.
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Jul 12, 2019 01:35am
Dam good idea,lets extradite Musharraf and deal with all of this people for once and all under sharia law. for it requires les proof
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Jul 12, 2019 01:56am
Good decision. It was long long long overdue for this action. Why are coming the criminals, corrupts, money-launderers, mal-administrators, etc., on screen of tv channels?
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Junaid Imran Mahmood
Jul 12, 2019 02:44am
@brr, What a joke. The press was with the corrupt former governments of 50 years. IK had socail media only and nothing esle. A monoploy was enjoyed by PML-N.
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Haaris Ali
Jul 12, 2019 03:06am
Long live democratic dictatorship.
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Muslim Medina
Jul 12, 2019 04:32am
It was necessary to control convicts and lairs using media to gain sympathy. Also a few anchors, who go a long way to show innocence of those who have been convicted, should be controlled. ,
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Jul 12, 2019 05:23am
Awesome! No coverage for liars that are convicted and under trial for lying, fraud and forgery. They will only spew more lies, fraud and forgery. Great decision by govt. don’t get steered by the hew and cries about freedom of speech. That is a privilege for the upright and honest only.
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Ali Khan
Jul 12, 2019 06:19am
This is a facsit regime.
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Jul 12, 2019 06:29am
Banning anything almost always has an adverse reaction. We banned alcohol, casinos, basant and we all know it didn t achieve its intended purpose.
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Jul 12, 2019 06:38am
An uncontrolled media is like a bull in a China shop.
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Jul 12, 2019 10:22am
This was not the expectation form Imran Khan's Government. Does support the notion "selected PM" or else why this scare?
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Jul 12, 2019 01:15pm
Best decision. Convicted criminals should not be allowed any press time.
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Jul 12, 2019 11:08pm
So is this rule applicable for IK? He too is under trial for chopper cases.
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