The Sindh High Court (SHC) on Friday issued notices to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting secretary and the Press Information Department (PID) on a petition challenging the withholding of advertisements by the federal government from daily Dawn newspaper.
A two-judge bench, headed by Justice Muhammad Ali Mazhar, also issued notice to the Deputy Attorney General, seeking response on behalf of the respondents by the next hearing scheduled for March 10.
The petition, filed by Advocate Muneer A. Malik on behalf of the Pakistan Herald Publications (Pvt) Limited (PHPL) and Hameed Haroon, the CEO of PHPL, had named as respondents the Federation of Pakistan through the secretary Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and PID through the principal information officer of the information ministry.
According to the petition, the federal government had suddenly stopped placing advertisements in Dawn since January 2020 and no reason was communicated to the publication for the same even though "such advertisements were being placed in Dawn for decades".
It had stated that the ban on publication of government ads in Dawn is based on mala fide intentions. "In fact, Dawn is being punished for the views and reports that it has published in its various editions as these views and reports do not conform to the views and opinions held by [...] the highest functionaries of the federal government," it had said.
"The withholding/banning of advertisements is an attempt to muzzle Dawn in the exercise of its fundamental right of freedom of the press."
The petition had noted that in a recent briefing to reporters, Prime Minister Imran Khan had reportedly accused Dawn of publishing "fake news" during his first official visit to China in November 2018. "It is respectfully submitted that no ‘fake news’ has been published as alleged," it had read.
"The [newspaper] has been condemned unheard. Similar comments and news were published in other newspapers that still continue to receive government advertisements and are in fact beneficiaries of increased advertisements by reason of their withholding the same for publication in Dawn."
According to the petition, Dawn is a ‘Metropolitan A’ newspaper falling within the highest circulation bracket. The circulation figures are verifiable by the government’s own Audit Bureau of Circulation.
The daily is widely read for the quality and objectivity of its news coverage, comments and features. It is not aligned with any political party, which is one reason why the public looks up to it for impartial reporting and analysis, the application had said.
It had added that the newspaper's editorial team operates independently of its management and ownership. A newspaper, however, is a product sold below the cost of its production and it “subsidises” its selling price through revenues earned from advertisements.
The federal government, the petition had said, is a major source of advertisements — usually public notices and awareness campaigns placed by the federal ministries and divisions and institutions working under the government.
It had stated that the PID is required to "act justly and fairly whilst releasing government advertisements to the print media. It cannot act on its whims and prejudices or in an arbitrary manner."
"The placement of advertisements in the print media and its distribution amongst various newspapers is not a largesse that the [government] can bestow on whomsoever they desire for whatsoever reason," it had said, adding that the government instead of acting indiscriminately and in accordance with a rational policy is denying ads to Dawn, which is an ex-facie violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 4, 9, 18, 19 and 25 of the Constitution.
The petition had further stated that the withholding of government advertisements will force the newspaper to raise its daily selling price, thereby adversely affecting its circulation. It adds that this drop in circulation "would have a domino effect of reducing advertising revenue and the newspaper would be trapped in a vicious cycle and would be finally forced to close down".
"The action of the respondents in withholding the government advertisements is calculated to and specifically intended to muzzle Dawn," the application had said.
The petition had urged the court to declare the action mala fide and unconstitutional and direct the government to release advertisements to the newspaper in accordance with the practice followed for the month of December 2019 and the months before that.