ISLAMABAD: A free and robust press is the backbone of democracy and serves as its conscience as well as mirror, Supreme Court judge Justice Qazi Faez Isa said on Monday.

“Without a free press, democracy quickly descends into an empty word, with its principles reduced to hollow ideas,” Justice Isa observed in his speech at an oath-taking ceremony of the executive body of the Press Associ­ation of Supreme Court (PAS).

The ceremony was held in the apex court’s Quetta Shuhada Hall.

When citizens fight for press freedom, they fight for their own rights and if they forfeit their right to free speech or permit censorship of the press, it will not be long before other guaranteed freedoms are taken way, Justice Isa said.

Violation of a fundamental right termed equal to violation of constitution

“Without the voice of the press, we risk losing our way, losing our constitution and our nation.”

Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have suppressed the press and imposed censorship, Justice Isa recalled. Since the country’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press as a fundamental right, “it’s not a favour that governments shower on citizens”, the judge observed.

He stressed that violation of a fundamental right was a violation of the Constitution, adding that adherence to the statute was an obligation of every citizen, as commanded by Article 5.

“Anyone who curtails a fundamental right is an enemy of the people and of the Constitution and must be held accountable,” Justice Isa emphasised.

It is necessary to expose injustice, wrongdoing, corruption and highhandedness, the judge observed. “Almighty Allah has also ordained that we speak up against injustice. To countenance restrictions on free speech and expression offends an essential article of the Islamic faith.”

There may be times when one is absolutely certain of the correctness of one’s views, but disagreement must not be discouraged, Justice Isa said.

He cited the example of Richard Dooling, a professor who stated that no matter how certain “you are about the weight of your opinion, you should resist the temptation to silence those who disagree”.

Justice Isa recalled that Pakistan signed and bound itself to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights during the premiership of Liaquat Ali Khan. The country had the distinction of being among the original 48 signatories to the declaration, which has now been signed by 150 countries.

Article 19 of this declaration relates to press freedom: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Pakistan made an auspicious beginning, a righteous commitment by the first prime minister 72 years ago, Justice Faez Isa recalled, but then went on to express fears that this guarantee of a free press was being extinguished now.

Justice Isa then quoted “Reporters without Frontiers”, which put Pakistan at 139th position in 2017 and 2018, and at 142nd last year, in its World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries.

“Its ranking reveals that we are not living up to what Pakistan’s founders wanted,” Justice Isa regretted. “Now our ranking has plunged to a shameful 145th position.”

He said Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as a member of pre-partition India’s legislative council, stood before a foreign occupying power and spoke against the Press Act. He termed it a crushing blow at liberty of the press.

The Quaid called for protecting those journalists who were doing their duty and serving both the nation and the government by criticising the rulers freely, independently and honestly.

Earlier, Abdul Qayyum Siddiqui, who heads the Press Association of the Supreme Court, expressed the hope that when Justice Isa becomes the Chief Justice of Pakistan in 2023, he would make efforts to regulate the exercise of Article 184(3) of the Constitution — a desire shared by the legal fraternity.

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2020