In a five-judge Supreme Court implementation bench on the Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams fund formed to monitor progress of work on the two projects, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed stated that he would always prefer even unfair criticism to silence, in a way restricting use of the contempt of court provision. The Honourable Judge was referring to the case of anchor-person Gharida Farooqi of the GNN TV channel, who had been chided by the Court for questioning the manner in which the contract for the construction of the 700MW Mohmand dam was awarded.

A clearer guide towards the standards of criticism towards the Court and government was direly needed, considering that many television programs, media groups and anchor-persons were called to the Supreme Court the past year and asked to explain even constructive critiques or commentaries they might have made of legal decisions or policy. The series of such cases highlighted the need for a restriction of contempt of court charges- the provision is enacted in law to ensure that the judiciary’s decisions are not allowed to be delegitimised. Yet these standards should never stifle valid criticism or exercise of freedom of speech.

So how do we ensure the freedom of the media and the press, while deterring disrespect of our law and order system? It is a difficult boundary to mark. Justice Azmat Saeed attempts this by drawing three categories- one the right to free expression, second doing a programme or a story without due diligence on the part of the journalist and the third being a deliberate policy to undermine the law. According to Justice Saeed, the Court should only take notice of the incident if it fell into the third category; otherwise, violation of journalistic ethics falls within the jurisdiction of PEMRA (Pakistan Electric Media Regulatory Authority).

After several court hearing against media bodies, which impinged on media rights and freedom of speech, this rollback by the Supreme Court was necessary. The initiative of the Mohmand dam is a policy decision, and policy decisions do not come under an umbrella of protection from criticism. Imposing vague penalties on commentary or criticism of the execution of policy projects does not have a basis in law and sets a dangerous precedent for the future of an independent press. This clarification by the Court on this was helpful, and it is hoped the Court will further engage into the legal questions surrounding this issue.