Pakistan's Judicial Evolution: From Pictures Not Allowed To Live Broadcast

Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa's decision to allow live broadcast of court proceedings is another step in evolution of judiciary's relationship with media, but gets mixed reception

Pakistan's Judicial Evolution: From Pictures Not Allowed To Live Broadcast

Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa made history when, on his first day, he decided that proceedings of a full court on the Practice and Procedure Act would be broadcast live. It was a decision widely appreciated by all sections of society. But some have questioned what this means as the next step in the evolving relationship between the media and the bench and the adage: "justice is seen to be done".

For the very first time, the general public was able to get a front-row seat to court proceedings. They could evaluate the conduct of judges and the lawyers appearing before the bench to plead their case.

The live stream of court proceedings benefitted the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), which got more than 15 million views.  

While it may seem sudden and abrupt for the general public, the move was many years in the making.

Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa is well aware of the immense digital transformation that has extended its reach to virtually every aspect of our lives much before he took oath as the chief justice. 

In fact, he can take credit for originally suggesting it when he requested the court to broadcast live the case proceedings against him.

Many have viewed this move outside the courtroom as an evolution of the relationship between the judiciary and the media.

For context, consider that previously, the judiciary had strictly disallowed even photos of courtrooms to be captured by unauthorised individuals. If such an act took place, it was considered a violation of the court's decorum and thus liable to attract contempt of court. 

On December 11, 2013, a full court reference was held in the same courtroom where Monday's proceedings were held. The reference in courtroom one was held in honour of former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary, who was retiring. Someone not only managed to capture footage of the proceedings, but a television channel later aired it, recalls senior court journalist Abdul Qayyum Siddiqui, who had played a role in getting the video to play on television. 

Chaudhry's successor and then-chief justice Tasadduq Hussain Jillani ordered the Supreme Court Registrar at the time, Muhammad Ali, to investigate how the video of a courtroom was leaked. 
"This was the level of strictness and prohibition that the then chief justice took cognisance against their own institution," Siddiqui said.

Siddiqui said that he appeared for the inquiry and submitted his reply, confessing his role in providing the video to his television channel. But if the question was about scandalising the judiciary, he sought contempt of court proceedings against all the television channels which aired the footage.

Ultimately, Staff Officer Abdul Hamid lost his post, but the inquiry did not result in contempt of court proceedings against anyone. 

The bridge between the judiciary and the media was first established during the lawyer's movement for reinstating Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as chief justice. Courts and judges became a regular feature in daily bulletins. But, with a change in the notion of politics and war of narrative building in the political paradigm, the judiciary has realised the importance of media in general and field reporters covering the Supreme Court in particular. 

The relationship between the judiciary and the media underwent further evolution during the judicial activism era of former chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar. 

Nisar strengthened the foundations of relationships between journalists and the judiciary. Many argue that it was because the tenure of Saqib Nisar was marred by political cases against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The recently outgoing chief justice Bandial went a step further. 

He also realised the power of emerging media and technologies. He even met those who create and post vlogs on social media.

Some argue that not only did the outgoing chief justice Umar Ata Bandial curry a coterie of 'like-minded' judges but also of 'like-minded' journalists as he engaged in a war of narratives. 

However, Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa has decided to change course and has opened the courtroom to public view. 

It is believed that all the high-profile cases of public importance will be live-streamed to be witnessed by the general public.  

Prior to this, Justice Isa was the only judge of the top court who allowed journalists to cover and report the in-chamber proceedings of the case regarding the cipher. 

Advocate Umar Gillani told The Friday Times that, like everything, livestreaming cases have pros and cons.

He said there is a strong argument that livestreaming the proceedings will add transparency to the court.

"But there is also the fear that judges, who are already prone to giving long and often boring speeches, will focus on 'performing' justice rather than doing justice," Advocate Gillani added. 

"However, this is such an epochal and phenomenal change in the judicial process that we will have to dwell upon it for a long time until we can determine if it's a good or bad thing. My mind on the subject is not yet fully made up," he said. 

Another lawyer said that as technology continues to evolve and adapt, traditional practices are being revolutionised, including how we access and observe court proceedings. 

"The advent of live streaming, particularly its integration into the legal framework, has brought about a paradigm shift in the transparency and accessibility of the judicial system," said Advocate Tania Bazai, a practising lawyer of the Islamabad High Court.  

Legal wizards believe that live streaming will expand the public's right to know and that too with radical immediacy while reducing the public's reliance on second-hand narratives. 

One aspect that was highlighted in the aftermath of the live broadcast of the Practice and Procedure Act was to observe how judges and lawyers tackle legal issues and where each stands in terms of expertise. 

"Those lawyers who were not well prepared or filed proxy petitions in the name of public interests do not like the idea of live broadcasting of the case," said a lawyer who wished not to be named. 

What the impact will be on justice in Pakistan with both the lawyers and the judges knowing that the world at large is watching everything that goes on in court remains to be seen.

The writer is an Islamabad based journalist working with The Friday Times. He tweets @SabihUlHussnain