Shooting the messenger?

Published January 5, 2022

THAT the Islamabad High Court may proceed to indict journalists among others in a case involving an affidavit signed by a former Gilgit-Baltistan chief justice sets an unfortunate precedent for press freedom. Named among the seven individuals who may be indicted next week are publisher and editor-in-chief of Jang Group Mir Shakeelur Rehman, journalist Ansar Abbasi and resident editor Amer Ghouri.

The Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association have rightly expressed concern over the order issued by the high court in the contempt case, as the media workers were merely reporting on an affidavit after confirming its existence and authenticity.

Read more: Concerns expressed over court directives of indicting journalists in affidavit case

Allegations of impropriety against the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court by another senior ex-judge, are indeed alarming. It is no surprise that the affidavit’s claim that former chief justice Saqib Nisar attempted to influence the judiciary in the Nawaz Sharif case has been taken so seriously and is being seen as having ‘scandalised’ the judiciary.

But indicting the media workers in question in a contempt case for learning about the story and then confirming it with the former GB judge Rana Shamim — and also contacting Mr Nisar — is a move that may prove detrimental to the cause of press freedom.

Such news stories are very much in the public interest, and taking action against those who report and publish it is akin to shooting the messenger. Mr Abbasi reported what he had learned and verified the existence of the affidavit.

While the claims of the latter have raised questions about the higher judiciary, the reporter cannot be punished for reporting on it. Indicting him will be viewed as a blow to press freedom, and may be seen as a warning to reporters to self-censor and to think twice before reporting on a matter even if it is true and in the public interest. Against this backdrop, the judiciary’s signal that it may indict the media workers will set a questionable precedent.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2022

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