Slander or fair criticism?
THE debate has always been on and will continue. A restraining order by the Islamabad High Court to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has added greater urgency to the discussion about freedom of expression and law in the Pakistani context. The order asked Pemra to ensure that nothing defamatory of the superior judges is aired by the television channels.
Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the IHC has called the Pemra chairman and the federal secretary of information and broadcasting on Oct 16 to explain the code of conduct evolved to prevent the airing of scandalous material. The restraining order has drawn a strong response by some leading lawyers, one of whom compared it with martial law directives of the past, remarking: “nobody should be afraid of the truth.” This is an important point since it is the search for the truth which brings new laws in place of old debilitating ones and that also allows for a liberal interpretation of the text concerned. Strict adherence to the text could block fair criticism and consequently stall the process of constant reformation of society and the law.
The counter argument in this case seeks to defend the honourable judges against ‘scandalous’ statements on the basis of existing laws. Pemra does have a rule book on what can be allowed on the channels and it can be pressed into strictly implementing this code. It has also been said that “no one can conduct a slanderous press conference against …any of the judges of the superior courts, as under the constitution the relevant forum for their trial is the Supreme Judicial Council not television channels”.
Two points arise. One, if all is equal before the law, what protection does the latter offer to others, for example politicians and government functionaries, who are so routinely lambasted on television? Surely there are legal and political forums available where these routine victims of media trials can be held accountable. Two, while the tone in which a grievance is expressed can be upsetting, the grievance seeking the notice of a court needs to be addressed nonetheless — in accordance with the magnanimity of the independent office.