20 January 2023
By Rehan Piracha
The Federal Investigation Agency has violated its guidelines by not informing the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) when it arrested journalist Shahid Malik in the tax records leak case of former army chief Gen (r) Qamar Javed Bajwa, according to senior journalists.
The FIA had submitted guidelines to the Islamabad High Court that the agency would inform the PFUJ in cases registered against journalists relating to the discharge of their professional duties, Saqib Bashir, president of Islamabad High Court Reporters Association, and Afzal Butt, president of PFUJ, told Voicepk.net. According to them, the special FIA guidelines for journalists were made on the directions of the IHC in its order in November 2020. “Under the guidelines, the FIA had informed the PFUJ about the initiation of inquiry in May 2022 against senior journalist and anchor Sami Ibrahim for allegedly spreading anti-state videos and statements on social media platforms,” Saqib Bashir said. However, the FIA chose to disregard the court-ordered guidelines when the agency arrested Shahid Aslam on January 13 in connection with the tax records leak case of former army chief Gen (r) Qamar Javed Bajwa, he added.
According to PFUJ President Afzal Butt, journalists from the ARY news channel have been charged with offences of sedition and mutiny in a case relating to on-airing comments of comments made by PTI leader Shahbaz Gill in August 2022. On Friday, a court in Islamabad adjourned the indictment of Gill and the ARY staff, including Director News Amad Yousaf, till February 2. “This is the first time in the country that journalists could face a death sentence or life imprisonment if indicted in the case,” Butt told Voicepk.net.
In its landmark November 2020 order, Islamabad High Court had directed the FIA to consider framing special guidelines for its investigating officers for proceedings against journalists.
“Freedom of the press would be elusive and would become a mere farce if journalists lose their independence and function under fear of being exposed to harm or retaliation because of their reporting and performing of other occupational functions,” Justice Athar Minallah, then chief justice of the Islamabad High Court wrote in his order on a petition by journalist Muhammad Arshad against high-handedness of the FIA. “Even such a perception created by the actions of the agents of the state would be enough to undermine and violate the constitutionally guaranteed rights under Articles 19 and 19 A of the Constitution,” Justice Athar Minallah added.
“The threat, whether real or perceived, of direct or indirect censorship because of functions performed by an independent journalist would amount to a breach of the constitutionally guaranteed rights under Articles 19 and 19 A of the Constitution. The duty of the state to protect the independence of the individual journalist and that of the occupation is a constitutional obligation because it is an integral part of Articles 19 and 19 A,” reads the IHC order on November 3, 2020.
The IHC also asked the federal government and cabinet to dispel any perception of inhibiting, limiting, or restricting freedom of the press through the abuse of coercive powers by the state functionaries. In the order, the court directed that the federal government and the FIA hold consultations with the representative bodies of journalists and media persons. “The Federal Government may also consider meaningful consultation with all the key stakeholders i.e. All Pakistan Newspapers Association, The Federal Union of Journalists, the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors, etc regarding dispelling the perception of apprehensions and intimidation of independent journalists and abuse of coercive powers by public functionaries, particularly in relation to exercising powers under the PECA 2016.”
In a judgment on October 31, 2022, the IHC quashed a first information report registered by the FIA against a citizen for retweeting a hashtag against the then army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. Justice Babar Sattar. Justice Babar Sattar admonished the FIA and the Ministry of Interior, terming the registration of the FIR is an abuse of the process of law aimed at enforcing illegal censorship of speech.
“Instead of indulging in such obsequious behavior to curry favor with public officials in high offices, FIA and the Ministry of Interior would do well by focusing on the discharge of their lawful duties and obligations in providing security to the citizens,” Justice Babar Sattar wrote in his order.
In another IHC order on the PFUJ petition against harassment of journalists in September 2022, then chief justice Athar Minallah noted that arrest and detention of persons engaged in the profession of journalism in relation to their speech or reporting sans actus rea, prima facie, is in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed rights.
“The Court exercises restraint in passing an order because an assurance has been given on behalf of the Federal Government that the grievances of the petitioner Federation will be redressed and appropriate action will be taken in this regard,” reads the order. According to the IHC order, Shahira Shahid, the Secretary of the Ministry of Information assured the court that appropriate actions would be taken to ensure that members of the petitioner Federation are not harassed nor dealt with otherwise than in accordance with the law.
According to Saqib Bashir, a committee comprising representatives of journalists has held several meetings with government officials regarding measures to ensure the safety and protection of journalists. However, further meetings of the committee have stalled following the elevation of Justice Athar Minallah to the Supreme Court.
In December 2022, Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial took suo motu notice of journalist Arshad Sharif’s death in Kenya. The apex court ordered the registration of the case as well as ensuring the release of funds to the Special Joint Investigation Team (SJIT) to undertake an investigation in Kenya and the United Arab Emirates.
“The real issues of the cause and perpetrators of the assassination of Mr. Arshad Sharif would be unraveled after the relevant evidence available abroad in the afore-noted two countries is collected,” the bench, headed by CJP Bandial, wrote in its order on January 5. The court adjourned the case till the first week of February after the additional attorney general requested a month’s time for submission of the next SJIT report.
In August 2021, the CJP also constituted a three-member bench to hear the journalists’ harassment case. The bench comprised Justice Ijazul Ahsan, Justice Munib Akhtar and Justice Qazi Muhammad Amin Ahmed.
On January 11, the bench disposed of the case regarding the alleged harassment of journalists after assurance of the FIA that no inquiry against any journalist was pending at the time. The deputy attorney general said that the top court had instructed the FIA to continue its work as per the law. The FIA had viewed all the investigations on the directives of the court, he said, adding that currently, there was no inquiry pending against any journalist.
Surprisingly, the FIA arrested Shahid Aslam just two days later after its submission to the apex court that no inquiry was pending against any journalist with the agency.