Supreme Court Takes Strong Stance on Misinformation, Media Regulation, and Journalist Harassment | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Supreme Court Takes Strong Stance on Misinformation, Media Regulation, and Journalist Harassment

Pakistan Press Foundation

A three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, led by Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, comprising Justice Musarrat Hilali and Justice Naeem Akhtar Afghan, addressed critical issues related to media freedom, the spread of misinformation, and the harassment of journalists on April 2.

The bench had taken up the Press As­­sociation of the Supreme Court’s (PAS) challenge to the “roving in­­quiries” by the Federal Investi­gation Agency (FIA) and summons being issued by a Joint Investi­ga­tion Team (JIT) on vague allegations of a so-called explicit and malicious campaign against the superior judiciary and its judges.”

Court Summons Six Petitioners 

During the hearing, CJP Isa discussed the intentions behind a 2022 petition filed by Advocate Haider Waheed. This petition, representing a diverse group including former police chief Syed Ibne Hussain, former joint secretary Hassan Mehmood, and others, sought to mandate the government to enforce a specific code of conduct to prevent the defamation of national institutions.

The application was filed on September 13, 2022, requesting the apex court to ensure the federal government, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) uphold Article 19 of the Constitution, aimed to establish a uniform regulator for all media platforms. This was in response to perceived unequal speech regulation and the challenges in addressing institutional defamation within existing legal frameworks.

During the proceedings on April 2, the absence of the petitioners and their representatives led CJP Isa to question the abrupt decision to withdraw the petition after two years, hinting at underlying motives and their impact on press freedom. He observed the varied backgrounds of the applicants, raising questions about their unified interest in regulating media and critiquing the media’s selective reporting on the case.

Attorney General for Pakistan Mansoor Usman Awan was called to address this matter, he labeled the application as an abuse of process. CJP highlighted the need for formal notification to all involved parties, emphasizing the significance of understanding the application’s impact on freedom of expression.  The court emphasized the importance of the petitioners’ presence in future hearings to clarify their intentions and the outcomes they initially sought.  

The six petitioners, including former police chief Syed Ibne Hussain from Lahore, former joint secretary Hassan Mehmood and Advocate Kosain Faisal from Islamabad, Advocate Mohammad Asif of the Chakwal Bar, Wings College Principal Prof Abrar Ahmed and senior vice chairman of International Human Rights Movement Raja Sher Bilal from Chakwal were summoned to address the abrupt change in their legal position and to provide clarity on their intentions and the desired outcomes of their initial petition. 

Fake News and Misinformation Discussion

CJP Isa highlighted the serious impact of fake news and misinformation, especially when targeting the judiciary, noting that such activities could be financially motivated. The discussion also touched on the broader implications for press freedom and the ethical responsibilities of media outlets and individuals on social media platforms.

Underscoring his point, CJP has expressed strong disapproval regarding false reports circulated about his wife’s alleged presence during a full court meeting. The CJP emphasized the misleading nature of these reports and questioned why his wife would need to issue a denial about such an obviously false claim.  

During the proceedings, CJP Isa addressed Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, the counsel representing the Press As­­sociation of the Supreme Court, probing the disciplinary measures against journalists who propagate falsehoods, by questioning, “If a journalist is found to be lying, will they terminate his membership?”

Responding to this, Ahmed clarified that a journalist’s membership could indeed be terminated following a show-cause notice.  The discussion then moved to the effectiveness of defamation laws, with Ahmed highlighting the stringent defamation framework in the UK, which has led to Pakistani news outlets facing cessation due to hefty fines. Chief Justice Isa emphasized the importance of internal accountability mechanisms within institutions for societal progress.

Matiullah Jan’s abduction

After addressing the initial matters, CJP Isa inquired about any urgent cases, leading Barrister Ahmed to mention the case of journalist Matiullah Jan. The Chief Justice remarked on the clear-cut nature of Jan’s case, highlighted by video evidence of his abduction, and questioned the government’s apparent inaction in advertising its search for the involved parties. He warned that the government’s failure to act could result in an unfavorable court order.

On July 21, 2020, Jan was abducted from the country’s capital Islamabad and later released after twelve hours.

The session concluded with Chief Justice Isa expressing concerns over the selective and sometimes completely fabricated news reporting. The court emphasized the need for a detailed decision to better understand the limits of freedom of expression. The bench sought written comments from respondents, and the hearing was adjourned for date-in-office (indefinite period). 

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