A five-member bench of the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that only the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) could take suo motu notice on his "discretion and shall do so if requested or recommended by a bench" of the apex court.
The order, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, stated that "the chief justice of Pakistan is the sole authority by and through whom the said jurisdiction (suo motu) can be, and is to be, invoked/assumed".
"No bench may take any step or make any order (whether in any pending proceedings or otherwise) as would or could constitute exercise of the suo motu jurisdiction (such as, but not limited to, the issuance of any notice, making any enquiry or summoning any person or authority or any report unless and until the chief justice has invoked/assumed the said jurisdiction," it added.
A five-judge bench, headed by Acting Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial and comprising Justice Ijazul Ahsan, Justice Munib Akhtar, Justice Qazi Mohammad Amin Ahmad and Justice Mohammad Ali Mazhar, also ruled that the August 20 order by another SC bench on a petition related to the harassment of journalists stood "recalled" and all filings stood "disposed of".
It added that the "substantive claims" made in the application by the Press Association of the Supreme Court (PAS) and other petitioners would be placed in front of the chief justice for consideration.
On Friday, a two-member SC bench consisting of Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhel had observed that since the application had raised matters of public importance with reference to the enforcement of fundamental rights, it met the criteria for invoking Article 184(3) of the Constitution under which suo motu is justified.
In its August 20 order, the Supreme Court had asked three senior officials to appear before it to hear the government's version on the rising incidents of harassment of journalists.
It had also issued notices to the secretaries of information and broadcasting, religious affairs and human rights ministries as well as to the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), asking them to state whether the allegations made in the application were correct or not.
However, acting CJP Bandial proceeded to constitute a larger five-judge bench on Saturday to provide clarity with regard to the invocation of the court's suo motu jurisdiction.
The new bench then put the August 20 order in abeyance on Monday and observed that its implementation may obscure and unsettle the practice of invoking suo motu jurisdiction. It also sought assistance from the stakeholders in determining the contours of exercising suo motu actions.
'SC will stand as a wall with journalists'
During the hearing today, Justice Bandial said there was "no difference of opinion" on the harassment of journalists.
He said that the application filed by the Press Association of Supreme Court and others would still be valid and action would be taken.
However, he noted that the Supreme Court had to take action in accordance with the law and its authority.
"If something is done to journalists, Supreme Court will stand as a wall with them. Protecting the Constitution and ensuring basic rights is the responsibility of the judiciary," observed Justice Ahsan.
Justice Amin said journalists would "never be disappointed" by the Supreme Court.
PSA President Amjad Bhatti said the apex court had raised legal questions, therefore, journalists could not present arguments in cooperation.
Talking about mistakes in the application, Justice Amin observed that it was missing the names of the parties concerned and different journalists had signed the application on different dates.
On the matter of taking suo motu notice, Justice Bandial noted that it was the chief justice's authority to constitute a bench and fix a date for hearing of a suo motu notice case.
A similar argument was presented by the vice-chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), who said that nobody had the authority to fix a case before a particular bench for hearing.
"There should not be an obstacle to the provision of justice on the basis of technicalities," he added, arguing that a nine-member SC bench had already decided that the apex court was bound to follow the established procedure.