Addressing contempt

Published June 7, 2024

THE judiciary should have long ago redrawn the line that separates acceptable and unacceptable criticism. It is realising quite belatedly that matters have gone too far.

As the Supreme Court proceeds in its contempt case against Senator Faisal Vawda and MNA Mustafa Kamal, 34 television channels have been issued show-cause notices for airing problematic remarks made by the two lawmakers, ostensibly in violation of broadcast regulations.

Some weeks ago, Messrs Vawda and Kamal had, on separate occasions, made several insinuations regarding the judiciary. Their remarks were aired live by many news channels, prompting concerns over what, prima facie, seemed to be an open attack on senior judges. The incident prompted the SC to take notice and summon the two lawmakers for an explanation.

While Mr Kamal subsequently attempted an apology, Mr Vawda has not appeared remorseful. It may be recalled that Mr Vawda doubled down on his stance some two weeks ago in a speech he made in the Senate, in which, protected by House privileges, he said he stood by every word uttered in his press conference. Another senator also seized the occasion to level his own condemnations against the judiciary.

Separately, a bill was presented to the National Assembly secretariat seeking a bar on individuals with dual nationality from serving in the judiciary, ostensibly to target a justice of the Islamabad High Court. Given the context in which these developments took place, the SC had to take a forceful stand. It must now take this case to its logical conclusion.

The TV channels that have been put on notice must explain themselves and commit to following broadcast regulations, while errant lawmakers must pay a price for their ad hominem attacks. It has been noticed that, in recent years, prominent individuals have taken to assailing the judiciary whenever rulings have gone against them. This has slowly given rise to a culture normalising contempt. It is imperative that this culture be dismantled and the boundaries of acceptable criticism defined once again.

Lastly, it is encouraging to note that the judiciary, while demonstrating more strictness on the matter of contempt, is taking a measured approach to rectifying the problem.

Pemra, which had earlier issued a blanket ban on the coverage of court proceedings in its ‘over-efficient’ response to the court’s concerns, has been admonished for an illogical order. The apex court has warned it against “creating hurdles in the way of court proceedings” and promised action if it did not comply. Separately, the IHC chief justice has also reaffirmed the media’s right to report fairly on ongoing proceedings.

Pemra should now withdraw its order forthwith and let the media do its job. Its strange diktat has caused enough trouble for reporters merely covering their beat.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2024

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