Friday December 01, 2023

The sword of contempt

By Editorial Board
January 01, 2022

Journalists have one primary duty – to inform the public. For a journalist, the story – after due editorial diligence – is everything. Which is why penalising a journalist for doing literally what his/her job requires of them can only be seen as an unfortunate and direct violation of the freedom of the press. The matter at hand is the decision by the Islamabad High Court to indict the editor-in-chief, editor, and editor investigations of this newspaper in a story published in November regarding an affidavit issued by former GB CJ Rana Shamim, in which he had implied certain wrongdoings by former CJ Saqib Nisar. As we have written earlier as well, it is an investigative reporter’s job to find exclusive stories, get the documents to corroborate the story, get statements from those in the story and then file the story. In this case, our Editor Investigations Mr Ansar Abbasi got an exclusive scoop. He verified it by reaching out to Judge Shamim while also contacting former CJ Saqib Nisar and publishing his denial. The name of the high court judge was not mentioned in the news report. The paper then ran the news – without editorialising the story in the least. Nowhere was there any attempt to malign the judiciary in any way. How this warrants such a penalty is a question we must ask as journalists and advocates of freedom of the media and the right to know.

Contempt laws do not enjoy the best history when it comes to journalists’ rights. At a time when journalism is already facing some of the worst restrictions it has had to see in the country, this indictment comes as a severe blow. There has been a long debate over the contempt laws in Pakistan, introduced in colonial times and never reformed. It is important that we re-examine the existing law in this matter. Multiple senior and brave names in journalism in the country have also pointed out that such penalisation will further hold back journalists from bringing important news before people and will strengthen the already stifling atmosphere of intense censorship in which journalists are barely managing to speak even the slightest truth to power. International journalists’ rights organisations such as CPJ and RSF have also pointed out that journalists should not be charged with contempt merely for reporting a verified story. In fact, the CPJ’s Steven Butler has laid out the essence of the matter in just a few words: ‘freedom of the press means freedom to report the news’.

We ask: in a country where the proverbial red line has become thicker and thicker over the years to an extent that news stories almost read like redacted classified files, what is a reporter to do when even verified news stories mean you end up facing contempt charges? And what precedent does this set? Will reporters be able to continue to freely use the minuscule space they have left? Or will they hold back on their job for fear of prosecution? These are questions journalists in Pakistan are rightly raising, in the hope that the honourable courts can understand these concerns so that the Pakistani journalist does not have to fear contempt each time he/she does a story that is in the public interest.