November 19th, 2020 

By Rehan Piracha 


The Islamabad High Court has adjourned hearing of a petition by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) against the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)’s ban on broadcasting speeches by proclaimed offenders and absconders till December 16.

The petitioners included human rights activists and journalists I.A. Rehman, Saleema Hashmi, Saleema Hashmi, Mohammad Ziauddin, Munizae Jahangir, Abid Saqi, Saleem Safi, Zahid Hussain, Asma Shirazi, Syed Ejaz Haider, Ghazi Salahuddin, Zubeida Mustafa, Najam Sethi, Nasim Zehra, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Gharida Farooqi, Mehmal Sarfraz and Mansoor Ali Khan.

Chief Justice Athar Minallah,  who was hearing the petition on Thursday in Islamabad, asked the petitioners’ counsel, Salman Akram Raja, to give arguments on the maintainability of the petition in the next hearing on December 16. During the proceedings, Chief Justice Athar Minallah inquired from the counsel about whom the plea was seeking relief for, adding that the court had given a verdict in a similar matter about former president Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf. He said the judiciary had withstood much due to the recent political instability in the country. In the Musharraf case, the judiciary has clearly stated that there would be no relief for any absconder, he said.

Chief Justice Athar Minallah asked the petitioners’ counsel to name the person for whom they were seeking relief or whether PEMRA has banned a particular person in this regard. Salman Akram Raja told the court that the PEMRA has not banned anyone in particular under its order. Chief Justice Athar Minallah said two persons have been affected under the PEMRA order. However, Raja said the PEMRA order has affected thousands of people, adding that the petitioners’ right to information has been infringed. The counsel said the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression under Article 19A.  Chief Justice Athar Minallah said if the court suspended the PEMRA order all absconders would get the right to go on air. He said the court could not give relief to absconders.

Petition not linked to any personality: HRCP

Explaining the background of the petition, Munizae Jahangir, council member of HRCP, said the HRCP and the PFUJ had initially discussed approaching the courts in September about the shrinking space of freedom of the press in the country, especially framing of sedition cases against journalists. She said several senior journalists and activists expressed their wish to join the HRCP and PFUJ’s petition against the PEMRA order that limited freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution, adding that both organizations decided to welcome them.

The HRCP council member said the petition was not about any specific personality, adding that HRCP’s Asma Jahangir had approached the courts against restrictions imposed on speeches on former MQM chief Altaf Hussain in the tenure of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The HRCP believes that State authorities can impose a ban on actions of individuals and cannot on the individual himself. Furthermore, the petition emphasizes upon what law has the PEMRA placed restrictions on dissemination of information, she said, adding that the PEMRA ban was illegal as there was no law in the country  that can ban freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Petition seeks protection of fundamental right of freedom of the press: PFUJ

Speaking to, Nasir Zaidi, General Secretary of PFUJ, said the PEMRA through its prohibitive orders and actions was in violation of basic fundamental right of freedom of the press under the Constitution. He said the authority was not acting as an independent  body but rather as a tool and organ of the government. The PEMRA actions were being dictated by the federal government, he said. On a daily basis, the PEMRA is issuing advices to broadcast channels about restricting news content besides closing down channels in case of non-compliance with instructions, he added. Zaidi said the PFUJ has approached the court through its petition in order to protect the fundamental right of freedom of the press and freedom of expression under the Constitution.

What’s in the petition?

The petition has challenged the PEMRA order on October 1st, 2020 and earlier directive may 27th 2019 about ban on broadcasting speeches by proclaimed offenders and absconders. The petitioners plead that the PEMRA directives prohibit freedom of speech and of the press guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution. The petitioners have raised questions about the denial by state authorities of fundamental rights to citizens. The questions relate to scope of information to which has been guaranteed under the constitution. Secondly, whether views and words expressed by a person in which the public at large may have an interest is covered under the scope of information listed in the Constitution and whether the State or its agencies can restrict access to such information or its dissemination by journalists and news outlets. Thirdly, whether the words of convict, proclaimed offender and absconder fall outside the ambit of information listed in the Constitution.

According to the petition, it is the right of the petitioners and of the print and electronic media in general to express, publish, disseminate, relay and broadcast the views and words of any person, including a convict, proclaimed offender or an absconder. The petitioners have requested the court to declare PEMRA’s directives illegal.