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Journalist bodies ask SC to strike down JIT probing case

Our Correspondent
Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

ISLAMABAD: The apex court of the country was requested on Wednesday to strike down the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) constituted by the caretaker federal government for ascertaining the facts behind the social media campaign attempting to malign the image of the Supreme Court judges.

Press Association of the Supreme Court (PAS) through its President Aqeel Afzal and the Islamabad High Court Journalists Association on Wednesday filed a joint petition in the apex court under Article 184(3) of the Constitution making Federation of Pakistan through the Ministry of Interior Secretary and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) as respondents.

Filed through Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, both the journalist associations prayed to the apex court to strike down the notification issued by the government on January 16 to constitute the JIT and any FIA notices issued following the notification.

The apex court was prayed to declare that the FIA had no jurisdiction to inquire into or investigate the so-called “explicit and malicious campaign against judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan” or “derogatory remarks against the superior judiciary of Pakistan” and declare the same to violate Article 19, 19-A, 175 and 204 of the Constitution and ultra vires PECA 2016.

Both the journalist associations also prayed the apex court to declare that Rule 17 of the PECA Investigation Rules 2018 and Section 30 of PECA 2016 ultra vires, and strike it down, insofar as it allows the inclusion of intelligence and other government or public sector organisations/ agencies in a JIT.

The petition began with the quote by George Washington, “If the freedom of speech be taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”. It questioned whether roving inquiries by the FIA, appointment of JIT and multitudinous summons under section 160 CrPC in respect of vague allegations regarding a so-called “explicit and malicious campaign against Hon. Judges of Supreme Court of Pakistan” or “derogatory remarks against the Superior Judiciary of Pakistan” has a chilling effect and unreasonably restricts the right of free speech and information guaranteed under Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution.

The petitioners further questioned whether the right to punish (or show forbearance in respect of) speech that scandalises the court or brings the court or a judge into hatred, ridicule or contempt vests exclusively in the apex court under Article 204 of the Constitution, adding that allowing the executive to usurp that discretion infringes the doctrine of separation of powers.

Both the press associations submitted that the petition is brought pro bono publico in respect of the attempt by the respondents, through the unlawful and intimidatory exercise of state power, to muzzle free speech and criticism in relation to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. “It is, accordingly, an issue of public importance involving the enforcement of fundamental rights,” the petitioner submitted, adding that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any democratic state governed under the rule of law.

The petitioners contended that it was not merely a liberty inhering in the citizens of a free state but it was both an essential prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of the right to vote and a check against abuse or misuse of power by state institutions.

“Thus, a free, vibrant and independent media is termed the fourth pillar of State,” said the petition, adding that the power to punish for scandalisation of a judge or the judiciary – so cautiously and sparingly exercised by this court itself – cannot be handed over to the FIA to be used as and when it deems fit.

The petitioners submitted that when the FIA takes over the duties of enforcing contempt laws by misusing PECA 2016, journalists are often deprived of fair hearing or bail by trial courts which may be influenced by the that the matter pertains to the apex court.

They contended that the SC decision on 13.1.2024 in Election Commission of Pakistan v. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was a matter of great public interest and importance, and had very significant political implications.

“Accordingly, they stated that it was the subject of much public comment and criticism in print, electronic and social media – some expressed in scathing terms and some of which was unjustified. “It is for this court to determine whether any such comment or criticism constituted contempt of court and, if so, whether any further action is warranted,” the petitioners submitted.

They informed the court that in all, it was reported that a total of 65 notices had been issued to various persons (including more than 30 journalists) pursuant to no less than 115 inquiries registered in different FIA CCRCs including Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan, Faisalabad, Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Gilgit, Islamabad, Peshawar, Abbottabad, Dera Ismail Khan, Quetta and Gwadar.

The petitioners submitted that several of their members have received such notices and/ or are addressed in such notices circulated on social media, adding that other prominent journalists and political activists mentioned in the notices circulated in the media include Sohail Rasheed, Muhammad Basharat, Waseem Malik, Cyril Almeida, Ehtesham Kayani, Asad Ali Toor, Saqib Bashir, Shaheen Sehbai, Syed Iqrar ul Hassan, Paras Jahanzaib, Syed Samar Abbas, Siddique Jan, Sabir Shakir, Ehtesham Naseer and Jibran Nasir.