Contempt and reporting

Published November 17, 2021

ALLEGATIONS of judicial misconduct levelled by a retired senior judge against former chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar have created a political storm and aggravated tensions between the PTI and the opposition on whether the 2018 elections were free and fair. The allegation itself is explosive and was recorded before an oath commissioner in the UK by former chief justice of Gilgit-Baltistan Rana Mohammad Shamim.

According to Mr Shamim, ahead of the election he was witness to the alleged undue influence that the then CJP exerted on judicial proceedings pertaining to the denial of bail to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz. He alleges that Mr Nisar made calls to a high court judge with a message to deny the two bail. Thus far, Mr Shamim maintains that his statement is true and voluntary, with no claims of having been under duress, while there is no evidence of compliance by the high court judge.

Read: Ex-GB chief judge Rana Shamim has 'direct relations' with Nawaz, served as his lawyer: son

The Islamabad High Court has taken notice of the allegations and summoned the journalist who broke the news in a national daily, the latter’s editor and editor-in-chief, and Mr Shamim in contempt proceedings. According to Justice Athar Minallah, “trial outside a court in any form which tends to influence the proceedings and determination in a pending matter attracts the offence of criminal contempt”. He said it also undermines the public’s trust in the judiciary. Ironically, Mr Shamim’s allegations point to the same danger of shaking the public’s confidence in the judiciary.

Though Justice Minallah’s concern about maintaining public trust in the judiciary is valid, the matter of the press reporting on the allegation should not be seen as contempt, as it is a function of reporting which is very much in the public interest. Moreover, instead of viewing this as a case of contempt, which may be seen by some as akin to shooting the messenger, shouldn’t the judiciary be more concerned about the allegation itself, and whether it is fact or fiction?

That a senior retired judge has levelled such a serious charge against a former CJP is no small matter. This is not a case of a politician making a flippant remark, but a specific and public accusation by a senior judge of judicial impropriety by the top-most judge at the time. It concerns the esteemed institution of the judiciary, with the charge coming from within the institution itself. Considering the gravity of the issue, the IHC or perhaps the Supreme Judicial Council should hold an inquiry to ascertain the truthfulness or otherwise of the allegation. In the eyes of the public, the judiciary is the guarantor of justice and must be seen as such. Avoiding this probe will only amplify speculation and tarnish the reputation of the judges in question. To enjoy public confidence, the judiciary ought to probe the allegation and set the record straight.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2021

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