Broad Contempt Powers Used to Censor Press
(New York) – Pakistan’s judges should cease using their contempt of court powers to prevent the media from airing programming critical of the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since Pakistan’s independent judiciary was restored to office in 2009, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and provincial high courts have repeatedly sought to prevent media criticism of the judiciary through threats of contempt of court proceedings, which can bring prison terms. Since October 2012, the high courts in Islamabad and Lahore have issued orders to stop the broadcast of television programs critical of the judiciary.
“Judges sworn to uphold the rule of law should not be using their broad contempt powers to muzzle criticism by the media,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Judges have no special immunity from criticism. Unless they want to be seen as instruments of coercion and censorship, they should immediately revoke these curbs on free expression.”
Recently, Pakistani courts have openly issued a spate of orders that seek to limit the media’s free expression rights, Human Rights Watch said. On October 9, Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court issued a restraining order to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to stop airing criticism of the judiciary on television. The court sought to justify its order by asserting that the media ban was “to ensure that no programme containing uncommendable, malicious, and wicked material is telecast by any of the channels in which person of the honourable chief justice of Pakistan and other honourable judges of the superior court are criticised, ridiculed, and defamed.”
On November 20, the court maintained the stay order preventing the airing of critical programming and demanded a progress report from PEMRA on a television show broadcast October 26 on ARY, a private channel, which criticized the conduct of Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhry. The court also issued a contempt notice to the channel’s chief executive officer, Haji Jan Mohammad.
On October 16, the Judge Nasir Saeed Sheikh of the Lahore High Court issued a stay order against the airing of “anti-judiciary” programming on television. On November 7, the court extended the stay against airing of television programming “intended to scandalize” the judiciary and directed PEMRA to ensure implementation of the order.
Journalists have told Human Rights Watch that major television stations and newspapers were informally advised by judicial authorities that they would be summoned to face contempt of court charges for criticizing or commenting unfavorably on judicial decisions or specific judges. In 2010 editors and former editors of several publications, including the English-language newspaper Dawn, faced contempt proceedings for publishing a story alleging misuse of office by the Sindh High Court chief justice, which was averted after their papers apologized publicly to the court.
Pakistan’s judiciary, independent of the executive since 2009, has been embroiled in a major crisis since June when Malik Riaz, a real estate tycoon, publicly accused Arsalan Iftikhar, the son of Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhry, of using the threat of prosecution to extort millions of dollars from him. Riaz also alleged he had held “secret meetings” with the chief justice. The allegations against Chaudhry’s son emerged in the backdrop of persistent tension between the judiciary and parliament. This peaked in June when the Supreme Court controversially disqualified Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani from office for refusing to bring criminal charges against the president, an act widely dubbed a “judicial coup.” The courts have since faced recurring allegations of judicial overreach into the legitimate constitutional domain of the legislature and the executive.
“No branch of government, including the courts, should be immune from public opinion in a democratic society,” Adams said. “Pakistan’s judges have demonstrated the independence to hold the government accountable. But their credibility will be lost so long as they fight against scrutiny and accountability of the judiciary itself.”