KARACHI: The Sindh High Court on Tuesday directed the director general of the Press Information Department (PID) to appear in person on March 24 over a petition filed by the Pakistan Herald Publications (Pvt) Limited (PHPL) against withholding of advertisements by the federal government from daily Dawn.
The petition, filed by Advocate Muneer A. Malik on the behalf of the PHPL and its CEO Hameed Haroon, named the federation of Pakistan through the secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the PID through the principal information officer of the information ministry as respondents.
At the last hearing, the bench had put the respondents on notice.
When the petition came up for hearing before a two-judge SHC bench headed by Justice Mohammad Ali Mazhar on Tuesday, assistant admin officer Asif Javed and information officer Ashfaq Ahmed of the PID turned up, but they requested for time to submit a reply and also sought a copy of the petition, which was provided during the course of the day.
The admin officer contended that they were releasing federal government advertisements to Dawn, but Mr Malik denied the statement.
“In order to thresh out this statement, the presence of Director General, Press Information Department, Government of Pakistan, is necessary who will appear in person on the next date,” the court order said.
The petition said that the federal government has suddenly stopped placing advertisements in Dawn since January this year and no reason has been communicated to the publication for the same even though such advertisements were being placed in the newspaper for decades.
It further stated that the ban on the publication of the government advertisements in Dawn was based on mala fide intention. “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,” the petition added.
“The withholding/banning of advertisements is an attempt to muzzle Dawn in the exercise of its fundamental right of freedom of the press,” it said and added: “The right guaranteed under the Article 19 [of the Constitution] extends not only to the right to disseminate news and views, but also to the volume of circulation.
“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 the beneficiaries of increased advertisements by reason of their withholding the same for publication in Dawn.”
The petition noted that in a recent briefing to reporters, Prime Minister Imran Khan 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, the petition maintained.
According to the petition, Dawn is a ‘Metropolitan A’ newspaper falling within the highest circulation bracket and the circulation figures are verifiable by the government’s own Audit Bureau of Circulation.
The petition stated that Dawn is a widely read newspaper 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.
It said 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 the revenues earned from advertisements, the petition argued.
The federal government, it added, 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.
The petition stated that the PID was required to act justly and fairly whilst releasing government advertisements to the print media and 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 stated, adding that the government instead of acting indiscriminately and in accordance with a rational policy is denying ads to Dawn, which was an ex-facie violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 4, 9, 18, 19 and 25 of the Constitution.
The petitioners have requested the court to declare the action mala fide and unconstitutional in violation of Articles 19 and 25 of the Constitution.
They have also sought directives for the federal government to release advertisements to Dawn in accordance with the practice followed for the month of December 2019 and the months before that.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2020