Supreme Court judge Justice Qazi Faez Isa, while stressing the importance of media freedom in a society, on Monday said that a "free and robust press is the backbone of a democracy".
In a speech at the oathtaking ceremony of the Supreme Court Press Association, Justice Isa said: "Informed citizens, including journalists, can better identify wrongdoing in governance and demand accountability. And, if those exercising power know that they are subject to public scrutiny, they are less likely to abuse power."
The top court judge said that though journalists, unlike public servants including judges, members of the armed forces and lawmakers, were not legally obliged to take oaths, doing so was a "testament to [the journalists'] integrity".
"I pray that you have the strength to abide by the oath and withstand outside pressure," he said. "How very different this country would have been if oaths were abided by."
The judge said that Article 19 of the Constitution has granted all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression.
The 18th Amendment, he said, made press freedom "more effective" as the right to access to information in all matters of public interest was granted by federal and provincial governments.
Justice Isa also commented on the need for the media to be unbiased while delivering news and recalled that in 1991, he had written an essay titled 'Freedom for the Thought We Hate', in which he had cited a PTV news bulletin which aired the then interior minister's criticism of a speech made by the opposition leader. The speech of the latter, however, was not aired by the state TV channel.
"Presenting only one side of the story, broadcasting selected messages and controlling the media is not permissible," he remarked. The judge also quoted a judgement by a former chief justice of the Sindh High Court Ajmal Mian in which the latter wrote: "It is unfortunate to observe that the broadcasting corporation and television corporation have not been able to establish their credibility as independent organs."
He said that Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah had spoken out against the Press Act when the subcontinent was colonised by the British and had stood for the protection of journalists "who are doing their duty".
After its independence, Pakistan became one of the first 48 signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — Article 19 of which acknowledges freedom of speech and expression — during the tenure of the country's first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, Justice Isa pointed out and added that it was "an auspicious beginning" for Pakistan.
"Is this commitment and guarantee of free press burning or is it being extinguished?" he asked.
The judge cautioned that if citizens surrender their right to free speech, they would soon be robbed of other rights as well.