ISLAMABAD - Supreme Court directed Pakistan Electronic Media and Regulatory Authority to ensure that any news or discussions and debates in programmes shall not be aired which are likely to jeopardise the ongoing inquiries, investigations or trials.

The top court further ruled that a sub-judice matter might be aired but only for the purpose of providing information to the public and that the information should be objective in nature.

“Any discussion on a matter which is sub-judice may be aired but only to the extent that it is to provide information to the public which is objective in nature and not subjective, and no content, including commentary, opinions or suggestions about the potential fate of such sub-judice matter which tends to prejudice the determination by a court, tribunal, etc., shall be aired,” the top court ruled.

It further ruled that content based on extracts of court proceedings, police records and other sources are allowed to the extent that they are fair and correct, adding that any news or discussions in the TV programmes shall not be aired which are likely to jeopardise the ongoing inquiries, investigations or trials.

The top court issued a 33-page judgment in the case of Anchor Arshad Sharif. The SC had taken notice of the current affairs programmes wherein the anchor showed two different affidavits of Pakistan People’s Party Co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari and discussed the alleged money laundering of billions of rupees through fake bank accounts.

The judgment authored by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar observed, “If voluntary violations of the Code of Conduct or even negligence by the licensees to ensure adherence thereto is not penalised by PEMRA, the Code of Conduct will be reduced to a mere paper tiger and be rendered absolutely redundant.”

PEMRA is directed to ensure that the discussion of sub-judice matters must be conducted in a manner which does not negatively affect another person’s fundamental right and the right to fair trial.

“All licensees should be sent a reminder of their basic ethics and objectives, standards and obligations under the Code of Conduct, particularly Clause 4 (10) thereof, in that, editorial oversight should be observed prior to the airing of all programmes and any programme, the subject or content of which is found or deemed to be in violation of the Code of Conduct in its true letter and spirit, should not be aired by the licensee.”

The electronic media’s regulator was further directed to ensure compliance with Clause 5 of the Code of Conduct, adding that ‘all licensees should strictly ensure that an effective delaying mechanism is in place for broadcasting live programmes to ensure stern compliance with the Code of Conduct and Articles 4, 10A and 204 of the Constitution.”

“In compliance with Clause 17 of the Code of Conduct, an impartial and competent in-house Monitoring Committee shall be formed by each licensee, with intimation to PEMRA which shall be duty bound to ensure compliance of the Code of Conduct”, the court ruled.

It is ordered that the channels shall be required to hold regular trainings of its officers, employees, staff, anchors, representatives with regards to ensure compliance with the Code of Conduct.

“If any licensee is found to have violated or failed to observe the Code of Conduct in its true letter and spirit, particularly Clause 4 of thereof, and/or Articles 4, 10A and 204 of the Constitution, strict and immediate action should be taken against such licensee in accordance with Section 33 of the Ordinance.”

“The Supreme Court or any High Court retains the power to take cognisance of the matter and shall exercise its powers under Article 204 ibid where such court is of the opinion that it is appropriate in the facts and circumstances of the case for it to do so,” the top court ruled.

“The oft-used term of ‘media trial’ is a real phenomenon and cannot be allowed. Where the fate of sub-judice matters is being decided on public forums, not only the minds of the public are being influenced, but also potentially minds of the judges seized of the sub-judice matter, and lawyers and investigators, involved in such matter, this would obviously tend to prejudice the sub-judice matter,” the judgement observed.

It is observed that although judges have the ability to ignore any irrelevant considerations while adjudicating a matter, the mere risk or danger of causing prejudice to a pending matter is sufficient for the law to step in to protect the right of the one being adversely affected.

“While public interest may at times require that information be provided regarding a certain case, strict guidelines with regards to such publication are necessary to be imposed to ensure that the fundamental rights of all persons are given equal weight including the accused or those involved in such proceedings.”

The verdict said that a balance must be struck between the right to freedom of speech and information on one hand and the right to fair trial, to be dealt with in accordance with law and of due process on the other.

“No person must be deprived of his or her fundamental right to be tried by an impartial judiciary and unbiased judge and an objective and fair trial unless a certain allegation is proved against him strictly in accordance with the law.”

The judgment said that while on one hand, such programmes are allowed to be aired thereby protecting the freedom of speech and the right to information; the requirement that they ought to be aired in an informative and objective manner and that no content should be aired which tends to prejudice the determination by a court, tribunal or any other judicial or quasi-judicial forum, ensures that the right to fair trial, to be dealt with in accordance with law and of due process are duly safeguarded.

“In fact, the Code of Conduct aids the broadcast media and distribution services in compliance of their responsibility under the Code of Conduct by providing pragmatic measures to ensure that they stay within the permissible boundaries of freedom of speech prescribed in the law when it comes to reporting sub judice matters.”

The judgment further stated that the law in Pakistan by virtue of the Code of Conduct in fact places greater trust in its media and journalist community by trusting that they will provide objective information about pending proceedings while taking precautions that they do not pass subjective or prejudicial comments in such regard.

“Drawing assumptions, inferences and conclusions from evidence or the documents filed in a case and stepping into the shoes of a judge on broadcasted programmes may not only convict the accused in the eyes of the public regardless of whether he is ultimately exonerated by a Court, but certain comments or opinions may be voiced which could potentially instil bias and prejudice in the minds of the judges, particularly to those who are dealing with the sub-judice matter, thereby violating the fundamental rights under Articles 4 and 10A of the Constitution of the persons involved in such matter.”