This article was published in Dawn on September 22, 2019 and is available at the following link
It is ironic that barely six days after Pakistan’s top judge said in a speech that he found concerns being raised about the “muzzling of the print and electronic media, and suppression of dissent,” a disturbing trend, the federal cabinet decided it would set up media courts to expedite the disposal of media-related complaints.
The condemnation of the idea of media courts came from across the board, as all representative bodies of different sections of the media- from the All Pakistan Newspapers Society to the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors, and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists rejected the idea. An editorial in Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper echoed the common sentiment, and called the move ‘extraordinary, unwise and provocative.’
The Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, had warned in his speechless than a week earlier, that suppressed voices would only generate frustration and discontent, and that increasing discontent posed a serious threat to the democratic system itself. He had reminded everyone, especially the country’s leaders, that democracy would require a “long-term” approach as well as tolerance for dissent, without which the system might plunge into authoritarianism.
“And we have witnessed plenty of it in the past with disastrous consequences,” he said.
It is safe to say, that even if an immediate change is not witnessed in the intensity and direction of the accountability process, considerable pressure will be generated by Justice Khosa’s comments to review the tactics in the medium to long term.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Even before the idea of media courts was formally announced by the government, several other actions had effectively limited the freedom of print and electronic media in general. CJP’s comments on endangered media freedom came in the backdrop of a series of such steps already taken by the government. Many newspaper columnists regularly report that their columns, if critical of the government beyond a certain threshold, are not published and talk-shows and interviews have been routinely taken off-air.
But media freedom was not the only major national issue touched on by the Chief Justice in his speech. There is an on-going accountability process under which an unprecedentedly large number of elected legislators are already in prison, and which is frequently branded by opposition politicians as partisan. The government and the National Accountability Bureau, the country’s anti-graft agency, reject all such criticism and have upheld that the accountability drive is fair and entirely independent of political considerations.
Whatever the case, it was an extraordinary step for the CJP to comment on such a contentious subject in a very high-profile speech. He didn’t mince words, and spoke about a growing perception that the process of accountability being pursued in the country was “lopsided.” Justice Khosa also went on to suggest that some remedial steps needed to be taken urgently so that the process wouldn’t lose credibility.
It is safe to say, that even if an immediate change is not witnessed in the intensity and direction of the accountability process, considerable pressure will be generated by Justice Khosa’s comments to review the tactics in the medium to long term. More importantly, the top judge’s views will convey a significant message to the judges of the accountability courts who are part of the judiciary supervised by Justice Khosa, and whose conduct and independence has lately come under some criticism.
Another contentious issue that the judge referred to in his speech, and one which is not openly debated in the country, was that of shrinking civil space in the affairs of the state. Speaking of the judiciary as an independent organ of the state responsible for safeguarding the constitutional ethos of the country, he made it clear he had deep reservations about the consequences of receding political space in governance, which would hurt the future of Pakistan’s constitutional democracy.
It is true that Pakistan’s chief judges have been quite outspoken in the past as well, but it is important to remember that most of their comments hit media headlines during court proceedings. This case was different. Justice Khosa’s observations were part of a prepared text delivered during a high-profile ceremony that marked the opening of the new judicial year, and his views must be taken as well-considered, and for that reason, worthy of being taken more seriously. The honeymoon for the 13-month old government might just be over; not only for politicians and the media but now it seems, for the country’s honorable judges as well.