ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court has held that it is a duty of the federal government and state functionaries to demonstrate that there is no threat to freedom of expression in Pakistan and remove a perception that the state and its functionaries, instead of protecting the fundamental rights, are involved or complacent in the impunity for crimes against its citizens, particularly journalists.

As nothing impedes the freedom of expression and free speech more than such fear or perception, removing the perception becomes a duty of the state, observed IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Wednesday while deciding a habeas corpus petition of Shahid Akbar Abbasi regarding the forced abduction of senior journalist Matiullah Jan in broad daylight in the federal capital a day ago.

The chief justice expressed the hope that the investigation into Mr Jan’s abduction would be conducted in the most transparent and diligent manner and that the perpetrators would be dealt with in a manner that no journalist in the country feared to be harmed for exposing the truth.

“No one is above the law and every citizen, including the state, are subservient to the rule of law and the supremacy of the Constitution,” Justice Minallah observed and concluded his seven-page verdict with George Washington’s quote “if freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we will be led, like sheep to the slaughter”.

CJP says intelligence agencies can’t be allowed to flout constitutional rights of citizens

The chief justice observed that the IHC had confidence in the state and abilities of its functionaries to meet the challenges, adding that this court had no doubt that the federal government had the political will to ensure those who attempted to terrorise journalists as a class and the public at large were not only apprehended but made an example so that no one could dare commit a crime with such impunity.

The court held that the case in hand was a challenge to the federal government and public office holders of the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). “They have to demonstrably show that there is a political will to put an end to impunity for crimes against citizens and to protect journalists from harm for exercising the right of free speech,” it said, adding that it was their duty to demonstrate that in Pakistan there was no tolerance for crimes that might be perceived as a threat to freedom of expression. The registration of criminal cases and giving public statements were not enough, the chief justice remarked. This was indeed a test case for the federal government and public functionaries of the ICT to dispel the impression that neither the state nor its agents were involved or complacent in a grave crime, he observed.

The high court recalled how crimes against journalists were taken seriously globally because of its fallout on society and the fundamental rights of the general public. “Abduction or enforced disappearance of any citizen is one of the gravest offences and thus cannot be tolerated in a society that professes to be committed to upholding the rule of law,” the chief justice said. But even a perception of involvement of the state and its functionaries in crimes committed against a journalist extended the infringement to the fundamental rights of the public at large guaranteed under Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution, he observed.

Tweet case

In a related development, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court postponed for two weeks contempt of court proceedings against journalist Matiullah Jan to let him engage a counsel and submit his reply regarding his tweet in Justice Qazi Faez Isa case decision.

During the hearing, Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed observed that none of the intelligence agencies could be allowed to flout the constitutional rights available to the citizens — the rights which need to be respected and honoured.

The bench inquired why the police authorities had not recorded Mr Jan’s statement regarding his abduction by unknown persons in broad daylight from the capital and his subsequent release in a far-flung area. The court ordered police to record his statement and furnish a challan before the relevant court so that action could be taken on it.

The CJP also ordered the federal government to take serious action with respect to the incident and proceed in accordance with the law.

During the hearing, Mr Jan said he needed to explain the circumstances in which he was picked up and what kind of threats he had been receiving.

Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan informed the court that the federal government had taken notice of the incident and was very much concerned about it.

Senior counsel Sardar Latif Khosa, who appeared on behalf of the journalist community, regretted that the impunity with which Mr Jan was whisked away reflected as if people were living in a banana state.

Meanwhile, the Barristers’ Society of Pakistan called upon the prime minister, the federal government and the superior judiciary to ensure that the abductors of Mr Jan were prosecuted.

The National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting, which met at PTV headquarters, witnessed an exchange of words between its members and Minister for Information Shibli Faraz. The committee asked the Islamabad police to bring the abductors of the journalist to book and identify their motives within 15 days.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2020

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