Judge, jury, executioner

It is time to curb media's instincts to pontificate upon matters that fall into the legal realm, writes Shahid Mehmood

Judge, jury, executioner
At the start of this year, Pakistani citizens were confronted with the horrors of child sexual abuse when the tragic story of Zainab’s kidnaping and murder in Kasur came to light. This exposed the dark underbelly of a morally and ethically deteriorating society. It was nothing short of a relief in these torrid times when the predator was finally identified, apprehended and put to trial. The entire country hoped that these kinds of instances would finally put this vexing issue in the spotlight so that our children’s future could be secure.

There was one dark aspect of this entire episode that has evaded public scrutiny. This aspect relates to the role of media taking on the role of judge, jury and interpreters of jurisprudence. For some time now, this media circus has gone on without any check. It has now become common sight that media persons engage in unnecessary speculation, interpretation and analysis that befit only a judge of legally established courts.

While these enticing bits of speculation can garner much needed ratings for media outlets and its anchors, this kind of circus is injurious to the public cause. How so? Readers of the Zainab murder episode will recall that during the proceedings of the trial, one specific anchor claimed that the murderer had a large number of bank accounts through which he was connected to some international child abuse ring, and that he was being backed by very influential persons within the country. These were astonishing claims that, not surprisingly, gained wide traction among Pakistanis who are brought up on a diet of conspiracy theories.
The attempted intrusion into the domain of courts by the media is not new, and the first famous case related to this aspect dates back to 1742

The fact that the anchor indulged in this fantasy was not a surprise at all because he did it many times before, most famously in the case of an Air Blue airplane crash in Margalla Hills, when he posited that it was brought down by anti-aircraft gun fire from the President House! What was rather astonishing was that the chief justice took note of this ludicrous claim and invited the anchor to share evidence with the court. Putting it another way, the proceedings of a legal court were affected by proceedings in a media court! As it turned out, unsurprisingly, the claims turned to be bogus with the CJ letting off the anchor rather lightly by slapping a three-month ban on him.

The injury to the public cause occurs in the form of making a mockery of legal procedures and an attempted murder of truth. Unfortunately, it has gone on for too long now, given that there is little regulation of this aspect of the media and the industry itself has failed to formulate any ethical code to curb its self-pontificating instincts. It was only a matter of time before somebody rose  to the occasion and tried to put an end to media taking up space reserved for the judicial system.

Advocate Majid Rashid Khan is a young lawyer who has taken it upon himself to stop this unwarranted media juggernaut. Last year, he filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Islamabad High Court to apprise the judiciary of this abuse and misuse of the right to inform the public. The details of his litigation contain some very interesting details.

The attempted intrusion into the domain of courts by the media is not new, and the first famous case related to this aspect dates back to 1742. Commonly known as the ‘St. James Evening Post’ case, it was the first reported instance where the judiciary took on the matter of violation of ‘sub judice’ (under consideration) rule by the media. The petitioner in this case was a widow of an army officer, who had petitioned against the executing agency of her estate. During the proceedings, two newspapers, Champion and St. James Evening Post, published pieces about this trial. Lord Chancellor Hardwicke accepted the plea that this amounted to ‘contempt by publication’, and opined prophetically that possibility of contempt of court may arise as a result of “prejudicing mankind against persons before the cause is heard.”

Since then, courts have normally reverted to this rule in order to determine whether an instance of contempt of court took place. In 1974, for example, the Sunday Times was penalised under this rule in the famous case involving Thalidomide, a drug whose side effects caused thousands of babies to be born with deformities. The case is commonly known as the Sunday Times Case. The newspaper tried to pressurise the manufacturer of the drug into giving more money as compensation despite the fact that the trial was underway. As a result of cases like these, the English Common Law codified this kind of contempt in its Contempt of Court Act 1981, strictly prohibiting media publications and statements on a matter that is sub judice. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, courts have either been reluctant to take such action or have shied away from initiating contempt proceedings against the media acting as the judge and the court. The result is instances like the one described above.

To conclude, it is time to curb media’s instincts to pontificate upon matters that fall into the legal realm, and its ungainly attempts to influence judicial outcomes. Let the judges decide what is wrong and what is right, rather than some shady anchors looking for cheap publicity.

The writer is an economist. He tweets at @ShahidMohmand79