ISLAMABAD: Chief Justice of Islamabad High Court (IHC) Justice Athar Minallah on Wednesday asked the government to dispel the impression of silencing the media and suggested a “meaningful” consultation of government and media bodies to ensure constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of expression.

IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah, while disposing of the petition filed by a journalist against the alleged harassment of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), made it clear that the government was under obligation to ensure independence of media for the benefit of public at large.

“Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees to every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression and the framers have explicitly guaranteed that there shall be freedom of the press. Article 19A makes it a constitutional right to have access to information in all matters of public importance,” the court order said. “The duty of the state to protect the independence of the individual journalist and that of the occupation is a constitutional obligation because it is an integral part of Articles 19 and 19A,” Justice Minallah observed.

Lack of access of the people to a free press affects the weaker and marginalised segments of the society the most because it empowers the elite and makes them unaccountable, the court noted.

The most effective accountability of the state and its powerful elite is through an independent and responsible press, it added.

Justice Minallah observed that the provisions of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) had been violated by the FIA, resultantly there was a surge in filing of petitions against the abuse of PECA.

It is expected that the FIA will consider prescribing special guidelines regarding proceedings against persons engaged in the profession of journalism on account of the profound effect on the freedom of press and independence of a journalist when the coercive powers are abused, giving rise to a perception of retaliation to professional functions performed. In this regard the agency may consult the key stakeholders, the court order said.

While the IHC chief justice expressed confidence on resolve of the prime minister and his cabinet for protecting the free media, the court also highlighted that “it is their constitutional duty to dispel any perception of inhibiting, limiting or restricting freedom of the press through abuse of coercive powers by the state functionaries.”

Subsequently, the court expected that the government would incorporate the provision related to the redressal of journalists’ grievances in the bill titled ‘Protection of Journalist Act 2014’ which has been tabled before the lower House of the parliament, the order said.

“The federal government may also consider meaningful consultation with all key stakeholders i.e. All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors, regarding dispelling the perception of apprehensions and intimidation of independent journalists and abuse of coercive powers by public functionaries, particularly in relation to exercising powers under the PECA 2016,” the court added.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2020

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