• Media aired Chattha’s allegations without verification, Justice Isa regrets
• Rejects reports by Islamabad police, FIA; slams authorities for failure to apprehend those behind Matiullah Jan’s abduction
• PBC expresses solidarity with ‘journalists facing harassment’

ISLAMABAD: Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa on Monday observed that the intimidation of the press would not be tolerated at any cost, since it involves key fundamental rights.

The observation came as he was dictating an order, following a prolonged hearing on the harassment of journalists.

Headed by the CJP, a three-judge bench including Justice Irfan Saadat Khan and Justice Naeem Akhtar Afghan also took up the Press Association of the Supreme Court’s (PAS) challenge to “roving inquiries” instituted against journalists by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on vague allegations of a “malicious campaign” against the superior judiciary and its judges.

During the hearing, the allegations levelled by former Rawal­pindi commissioner Liaquat Ali Chattha also echoed in the courtroom.

Mr Chattha had, on Feb 17, acc­used both the Election Commi­ssion of Pakistan (ECP) and the CJP of colluding to manipulate the Feb 8 general elections.

During Monday’s proceedings, the CJP regretted that the ex-commissioner, who later retracted his words, had levelled accusations against his person, which were run by all television channels without any verification.

It is a common practice globally that a piece of news is first verified before being aired, the CJP said, adding that no journalist had asked the accuser what proof he had towards his claim.

“When the credibility of the institutions are tarnished, we all get affected,” the CJP deplored, adding that Article 19, which guarantees freedom of expression, did not give a license to level baseless allegations.

CJP Isa also expressed serious displeasure with the reports furnished by Islamabad Police and the FIA on the harassment of journalists, and rejected them.

The court also expressed its displeasure over police failure to arrest those behind the Jan 2020 abduction of journalist Matiullah Jan. Pointing towards Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Usman Awan, the court observed that the crime was recorded on cameras installed under the Safe City Project, yet the police was unable to trace those responsible. “What kind of inspector general is this? He should be removed,” the CJP observed, adding that it appeared as if the authorities were playing the role of a facilitator.

“Shoot one journalist, torture, or pick up another,” CJP regretted.

The AGP, however, assured the court that a comprehensive report would be filed soon. Police also withdrew its statement that journalists were not cooperating with the investigation after they assured the court that they were ready to extend all necessary cooperation in connection with their inquiry.

Meanwhile, senior counsel Salahuddin Ahmed — appearing on behalf of PAS — referred to the notices issued by FIA to different journalists for allegedly running a malicious campaign against judges.

When the court inquired whether these notices have been issued to the journalists on a report furnished by judges or by the registrar of the Supreme Court, AGP conceded no such complaint had been made.

The counsel contended that the contents of the FIR registered against journalists which was referred by Inspector of the Cyber Crimes under sections 9, 10 and 24 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) did not constitute an offence, and was only done to intimidate the media.

The AGP was of the opinion that sections 9 and 10 of PECA may not be relevant to the case, assuring the court that he would look into the matter and render his advice.

Mr Ahmed also referred to the JIT constituted by the government under Section 30 of PECA, in which intelligence agencies officials had been co-opted, and pointed out that the law does not permit their inclusion. When the issue of journalist Asad Toor, who is currently in jail, was raised during Monday’s proceedings, the CJP wondered how the provisions under which Mr Toor was booked were justified.

PBC statement

Meanwhile, the Pak­istan Bar Council (PBC) on Monday reiterated vehemently its unwavering commitment to upholding the independence of the judiciary and ensuring freedom of expression in Pakistan.

These foundational principles are integral to a vibrant democracy and are essential for the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law, said PBC Vice Chairman Riazat Ali Sahar and PBC Executive Committee Chair­man Farooq Hamid Naek.

In a joint statement, both leaders expressed their concerns that professional journalists who were discharging their duties within the parameters of judiciary were facing threats and impediments against their fundamental rights.

No individual, including those within the media, should be permitted to engage in unethical practices or levy baseless allegations, particularly against esteemed judges of the superior judiciary. It is crucial that judges are able to fulfil their duties impartially, devoid of any influence or bias, and in strict adherence to the law and principles of justice.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2024

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