A five-member bench of the Supreme Court has ‘recalled’ the order of a two-member bench that had taken up a petition highlighting the harassment and intimidation of journalists, and placed the petition in front of the chief justice for consideration. The short order by the bench has also stated that suo moto powers can only be exercised by the chief justice in his discretion or if recommended or requested by a bench of the court.
The court has done well to state categorically that no other honourable judge or a bench can exercise this power. This may help keep the use of suo moto under check but the fact remains that chief justices in the past have used their discretion to pick and choose cases that have often come to dominate proceedings of the court. It is therefore important that chief justices use the suo moto powers sparingly, and only when the issue has no other way of being addressed by the court through a regular process. In this particular case, the petition addressing the harassment of journalists by state agencies amounts to a genuine case for judicial intervention. It is no secret that the media has been under tremendous pressure during the last few years. Media organisations as well as individual journalists that have been critical of government policies have had to face adverse circumstances. The latest government move to throttle freedom of expression through the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority is another regressive step that is reinforcing the perception that the government wants to keep the media under tight control. It is therefore hoped that the chief justice will take up the petition and demand answers from official agencies and other governmental stakeholders. The judges in their remarks in court were supportive of the role of the media and reiterated that genuine concerns of journalists would be addressed. These are welcome words and should bring greater attention and focus on the issues highlighted in the petition.
At the same time, the media should also pay greater attention to internal weaknesses plaguing the industry that have an adverse impact on the quality of journalism. The Supreme Court can ensure greater freedom of expression for the media but it cannot help improve the standards of journalism. It is easy for media organisations to point the finger in every direction except towards themselves. Greater introspection would do media owners and managers a world of good.
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2021