SC Acquits Sender, Helds Messenger


By: Qamar Bashir

The Supreme Court expressed visible displeasure when lawyer Faisal Siddique refused to offer an unconditional apology on behalf of 36 news channels that aired contemptuous press conferences by Senator Faisal Vawda and National Assembly member Mustafa Kamal. During these press conferences, the senator and MNA criticized the judiciary, demanding ethical standards for judges’ dual citizenship and transparency regarding their green cards. They also called for greater judicial accountability and scrutiny, purportedly in response to alleged interference by intelligence agencies in judicial proceedings at various court levels.

Certainly! Here’s a refined version:

Interestingly, the 36 news channels, acting as messengers, faced rigorous scrutiny throughout the three-hour proceedings for disseminating contemptuous messages from the offenders to the public. The proceedings appeared one-sided, with Chief Justice largely dominating the dialogue, limiting the advocates’ opportunity to present their case comprehensively. However, the Chief Justice attentively listened when another lawyer, purportedly aligned with the court, extensively discussed Quranic and Hadith teachings on handling heresy and backbiting in Islam, echoing the Chief Justice’s stance on the case in question.

It’s worth noting that in my current role, I am teaching media laws to probationers of the Information Group at the Information Services Academy. Our curriculum includes a historical perspective on the development of media laws, especially those pertaining to free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. Our research underscores that countries like the US, UK, and Sweden empower courts to issue contempt notices or take action against the media, particularly when it impacts the dignity and honor of the court, especially in ongoing cases.

In the United Kingdom, contempt is governed by common law principles and the Contempt of Court Act 1981, particularly Section 3, which outlines acts such as publishing material that could prejudice active legal proceedings. In the United States, Title 18, Section 401 of the US Code grants courts the authority to punish acts of contempt that obstruct justice or disrespect the court, with distinctions between civil and criminal contempt. In Sweden, contempt laws are found in the Swedish Penal Code, Chapter 7, addressing offenses against the administration of justice.

In Pakistan, the Supreme Court derives its power from Article 204 of the Constitution which empowers the Courts to punish any person who abuses or interferes with or obstructs the process of the court in way of disobey, scandalize the court, does anything which tends to prejudice the determination of a matter pending before the court and does anything which by law constitutes contempt of the court.

The Section 3 of Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003 says that whoever …. does anything which is intended to or tends to bring the authority of a Court or the administration of law into disrespect of disrepute, or to interfere with or obstruct or interrupt or prejudice the process of law or the due course of any judicial proceedings, or to lower the authority of a Court or scandalize a Judge in relation to his office, or to disturb the order or decorum of a Court, is said to commit “contempt of Court”. Whereas, Section 5 of the Ordinance determines the punishment of which may extend to six months’, or with fine which may extend to one hundred thousand rupees, or with both.

The clause 3(1)(e) of the PEMRA Code of Conduct, 2015, prohibits the media to not air any program which is against the integrity of the judiciary and armed forces of Pakistan.” PEMRA has the authority to impose penalties and regulatory actions including fines, warnings, and notices, as well as potential suspension or revocation of broadcasting licenses for serious or repeat offenses.

Unlike in Pakistan, the media outlets in the UK, US, and Sweden adhere to stringent guidelines to avoid contempt of court issues when covering press conferences or content related to ongoing legal proceedings. In the UK, media must refrain from publishing material that could substantially risk prejudicing active legal cases, especially criminal trials, and avoid speculative or detailed reporting that could impact trial fairness. In the US, the media follow federal and state laws to prevent contempt, ensuring accuracy, fairness, and avoiding sensationalism or inflammatory content that could undermine judicial authority. In Sweden, the media focuses on maintaining respect for the judiciary and refraining from statements that could disrupt legal processes, thus upholding the integrity of the legal system while safeguarding freedom of the press.

Like in Pakistan, in the US, UK, and Sweden as well, the media are considered messengers of information, at the sametimes, they are legally responsible for what they broadcast or publish, especially when airing contemptuous statements made by others.

In these countries even though primary responsibility may lie with the original sender of the statement, the media is  held accountable, if they knowingly disseminate material that could interfere with justice or undermine the authority of the courts. This requires the media to uphold standards of responsible journalism, including verification of information and avoidance of content that could harm the integrity of legal processes.

In various countries, media outlets have faced penalties for airing contemptuous statements against the judiciary. In the UK, The Daily Mirror and The Sun were fined under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 for publishing prejudicial articles during a murder trial. Similarly, in the US, the New York Post was fined for potentially biasing a jury with its coverage of a murder trial. Sweden’s Expressen also encountered penalties for publishing information that could sway a criminal trial. In India, Prashant Bhushan’s tweets critical of the judiciary led to a contempt ruling by the Supreme Court. In Pakistan, Geo News was temporarily banned and prosecuted for content seen as undermining judicial authority.

Given the circumstances, regardless of the arguments put forth by the lawyer representing the 36 channels, it is unlikely to save them from facing punishment for their deliberate negligence and failure to adhere to the explicit provisions of the Constitution, the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003, and the PEMRA Code of Conduct. Therefore, instead of attempting to assert his professional prowess, which is likely to be unsuccessful, Mr. Faisal Siddiqui should file an unconditional apology and leave the fate of the defiant channels in the hands of the court. Failure to do so may result in penal actions under both the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2002 and the PEMRA Act 2007.

By: Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC