ISLAMABAD: Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah has highlighted pressures an independent judge faces while hearing a high-profile case.
Addressing a webinar organised by the International Institute for Justice Excellence, The Hague, he said: “After deciding a case relating to a political personality, I was informed that a gentleman from outside the country had uploaded a video on social media platforms alleging that I was a beneficiary of a property gifted by the appellant. The details of the apartment were narrated with such confidence that those who did not know me would have been justified in believing the story. It had gone viral.”
Giving another example, Chief Justice Minallah said: “In September last year I was attending a conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Some judges of the Supreme Court and high courts were also attending. Outside the hotel where we were staying, a Cobra sports car was on exhibition. I and a Supreme Court judge had our photograph taken in the car. The photo went viral with the caption that I was in London and that the other person (the apex court judge) was an office-holder of a political party. The potency of social media platforms as a tool for spreading fake news and malicious propaganda became evident when after a few hours I received a call from my wife who had started doubting whether I was actually in Cape Town… There are several other instances of attempts to make a judge controversial.”
Speaking about the impact of social media on decision making by a judge, he said, “In this age of technology a judge cannot avoid direct or indirect access to social media and receiving information about happenings on social media platforms. It undoubtedly offers many advantages but simultaneously it has given rise to enormous challenges.”
The chief justice said quality and effectiveness of administration of justice was inconceivable without independent judiciary and independent judges. Likewise, independent judges lose their relevance when the judiciary as an institution lacks independence.
In a nutshell, he said, the ability of an individual judge to decide matters brought before him or her impartially, on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law, without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interference, direct or indirect from any quarter or for any reason, were characteristics of being independent.
Justice Minallah said the relevance of social media and its challenges in the context of independence of the judiciary and independent judges were rooted in the assurance that a judge would be protected against improper influences, pressures or threats while discharging judicial functions.
He said that the political forces also made attempts to influence judicial proceedings and judges.
“How should a judge react? What would be the most apt response institutionally? Abuse of social media platforms has an intense effect on stakeholders of administration of justice and people. Their confidence in the judicial system and judicial officers is pivotal,” he said.
Justice Minallah also referred to his order on a petition seeking contempt proceedings against journalist Matiullah Jan for uploading a contemptuous tweet. Justice Minallah said he “dismissed the petition in limine [at the start]. If contempt proceedings were to be initiated on the basis of a message uploaded on a social media platform, it would have opened floodgates of petitions.” He said the dignity and integrity of an independent judge was not so frail and vulnerable so as to be harmed by a tweet on social media platform.
He told the participants that a judge must learn not to fear or to be influenced by the content on social media platforms. Fake, malicious, false and misguided content and material on these forums should be ignored and the challenges should be met on the basis of commitment and faith in the oath of office, he concluded.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2020