Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Thursday said the "court cannot grant relief to an absconder" while hearing a petition challenging Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority's (Pemra) order to ban speeches, interviews and public addresses by proclaimed offenders.
The high court was debating the maintainability of the petition filed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and 15 renowned journalists, anchorpersons and media analysts.
Last month, Pemra had issued a prohibition order to all satellite news channels barring the broadcast and repeat broadcast of speeches, interviews and public addresses by proclaimed offenders and absconders.
Pemra had also barred the broadcast of any sort of debate on the possible outcomes of sub judice matters.
The order came after PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif’s speech was broadcast live by the electronic media while he was addressing a multi-parties conference via video link from London in October.
During the hearing of the petition today, Justice Minallah observed that if the court threw out Pemra's order, "all absconders will get the right to go on air".
He asked the petitioners' counsel, Salman Akram Raja, who would "benefit" from the court's order in this regard.
"Who are you asking relief for?" the judge asked and noted that the court had ruled, in a previous case relating to former dictator retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, that no relief can be granted to a fugitive.
"[Which person] has Pemra banned?" inquired Justice Minallah. "Pemra has not passed an order against any person," responded Raja.
The court remarked that "two people have been affected by Pemra's order" and noted that the "affected parties" were not present.
The court further said only the people affected by the ban can challenge Pemra's order but went on to add that a "proclaimed offender cannot even challenge an illegal order". The judge remarked that the "absconding suspects should first surrender themselves before the court and then take advantage of their legal rights".
The petitioners' counsel said that since Pemra's order is issued for media persons and journalists, they were the affected parties.
Raja argued that the order had affected thousands of people, not just two. He said the ban had affected the citizens' right to information which had been granted by the Constitution, adding that Article 19 (A) gave the right to freedom of expression.
When the court asked if the petitioners wanted Gen Musharraf's speeches to be aired as well, Raja said that the appeal was not about an individual.
"Petitioners desire that they are not stopped from relaying information to the public," the lawyer said.
Justice Minallah said Pemra's order had stopped channels from airing speeches of proclaimed offenders and remarked that "absconding suspects are discussed [on the media] daily".
"Freedom of expression is very important but here, the question is somewhat different," said IHC chief justice.
"[This is] a test for the entire judicial system. You want that relief be granted to all absconding suspects?" he questioned and added: "Granting relief to an absconding suspect is not in the public interest."
"Your appeal would grant relief to all absconding suspects which the court does not want to give," the judge said and told the counsel to prepare arguments to convince the court to take up the petition for further hearing.
The case was adjourned until December 16.
Journalists distance themselves from petition
Several journalists and media persons, who had become part of the petition, distanced themselves from the case earlier today.
Senior journalists Zahid Hussain and Naseem Zehra announced that they were withdrawing from the application, saying that a petition for media freedom "can't be narrowly focused on just one issue".
"I was told [the petition] was being filed for media freedom — instead it’s about rights of an absconder regarding Article 19," Zehra said in a tweet.
In another tweet, she said: "A media freedom petition can’t be narrowly focused on just one issue — instead it must cover dozens of examples of government/establishment muzzling media freedom which includes journalist nabbing and channel banning too."
Quoting Zehra's tweet, columnist Hussain said he agreed with her point of view and announced his withdrawal from the application. He added, however, that he "fully support(ed) freedom of expression for everyone".
Journalist and anchorperson Asma Sherazi said that she "gave [her] consent" to the petition "based on the principal (sic) of freedom of expression"
"But the petition in the form it is presented in the court is not what I agreed to nor I want this matter to be viewed from a specific person’s point of view," she said in a tweet.
"The petition [...] needs to be improved and should address clearly the core principal (sic) of freedom of speech regardless of individuals," she added.
Senior journalist Mohammad Ziauddin, meanwhile, said that he "would sign any petition questioning Pemra's directives".
He explained that as a branch of the information ministry, Pemra "can’t serve as a regulator in the true sense and its decisions would, therefore, be to protect and promote the interests of the government and not the State".
Anchorperson Gharidah Farooqi, in a live Twitter stream, condemned the "propaganda" against the petition, saying that there was a "planned effort to malign the credibility of journalists" who had become a part of the application.
In a later tweet, Farooqi said that while she had made her stance clear, she was "not in favour of person-specific laws/reliefs whatsoever; but in a broader general issue of media/press freedom".
She mentioned that she received the petition's draft after it was submitted in the high court, even though she kept asking for it before.