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Newsbytes coming back to bite

August 05, 2012


The Supreme Court of Pakistan building – Photo by Alia Chughtai/
The Supreme Court of Pakistan building – Photo by DawnNews

ISLAMABAD: Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s riposte to the remarks made by the Supreme Court judges on the conduct of opposition in the Parliament House has put the judiciary on the defensive. While the incident soured relations, at the same time it highlighted the judges’ increasing proclivity for passing unnecessary remarks during court hearings.

The judges had complained that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had not put up a strong enough defence against the passage of the Contempt of Court Act 2012 by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Little did they expect the strong lashing at the hand of the leader of the opposition, who in a press statement on July 27 said: “The honourable judges should enlighten the opposition where exactly it erred in coming up to their expectations… They should elaborate how the opposition with 90 members in the house of 342 could have stopped the passage of the bill.”

Needless to say, the judges were on the back foot and tried their best to appease the opposition party, going so far as to say that they always sought guidance from the parliament, and only discussed proceedings of the house that had led to the new law.

However, with over one dozen private TV channels reporting the proceeding of the Supreme Court live, each and every single word uttered by judges is turned into a juicy newsbyte for the tickers by rating-hungry editors.

At times even off-the-cuff remarks made by the judges that have no bearing on the actual proceedings are turned into breaking news headlines. The end result is that there is a lot of mayhem for no rhyme or reason.

Take for example the recent National Insurance Company Limited land scam hearing that allegedly involved Moonis Elahi, the son of Deputy Prime Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi.Even though it had been in the courts for a couple of years, there was so much commentary from all sides – judges, media and counsel representing the accused parties in the court – that for some time it looked as if this was the only important national issue under discussion.

So it was quite an anti-climax when last week, the Supreme Court due to lack of evidence relieved Moonis Elahi.

Talking to Dawn a veteran journalist who has served in top editorial positions with various newspapers reminisced the time when the media would only report the press release issued by the registrar of the Supreme Court.

In response to a question, he said, “Reporting observations or unimportant remarks of the judges were simply out of question.”

“Moreover, considering the sensitivity of legal issues, newspapers used to designate the most experienced journalist for court reporting, unlike now when even trainee reporters are sent to the court,” he added.

He agreed with the argument that reporting of simple observations by the judges which have no impact on the final outcome of a case started with the advent of 24/7 TV coverage in Pakistan.

“We don’t have to go to the US or UK to understand how the media covers proceedings of their respective apex courts, even in the neighbouring India the Supreme Court coverage is limited to its decisions. But unfortunately, in Pakistan we are setting a bad precedent by providing live commentary on court cases,” said another media person, who has covered the SC for the past many decades.

He then commented: “In all the established democracies of the world, judges are discouraged from taking any public role and socialization with common people. The logic behind this is that they are only supposed to follow the book, not public perception. But, ruefully, in Pakistan, when there will be so much coverage of court cases with journalists reporting from their own point of view, it will definitely affect the court.”

Requesting anonymity, a source who has experience of the way the judiciary works, also agreed with the contention that there should be some restrictions on coverage of the court cases, because the current practice creates undue pressure on judges.

Referring to Chaudhry Nisar’s reaction, he said it was now irrelevant whether the judges actually criticised the role of opposition or just wanted to understand how the opposition conducted itself when the PPP bulldozed the new law through the parliament.

“The episode has actually undermined the role of the judiciary in public view. And it all happened when judges passed some remarks that were immediately reported in the media,” he said.

On the other hand, a senior lawyer is of the view that both media and judiciary are in the process of adjusting to their new-found independence and it would take some time before they would actually start playing by the rules as followed in the fully functional democracies.

“It is no secret how former military rulers had used media and judiciary to their benefit. Now in the post-Musharraf era, all state organs – legislature, executive and judiciary – as well as the media are trying to assert their positions and in the process are bound to make mistakes,” said the lawyer.

He concluded on a hope-filled note: “With another five years of democratic rule, things would be far better than what people are witnessing today.”