Consecutive contempt petitions against Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) members propelled a backlash from the party, which leveled allegations of bias on part of the judiciary. Thus, there was a need for the Supreme Court to clarify its stance on the alleged offence of contempt of court, and to lay out its place in Pakistani law. And clarify it finally has, with Wednesday’s SC decision on this very issue.

The Supreme Court dismissed a contempt of court petition against ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif filed by a leader of former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s political party. Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar distinguished between contempt and criticism, stating that commenting cleanly on a court decision is the right of every citizen.

It was a politically smart move for the judiciary to dismiss the petition against Nawaz Sharif. After several cases decided against the ex-PML-N leader, it was important for the court to appear to pass a fair and just decision, to drive away the allegations of bias by Nawaz. The court may have also finally caught upon the irony that every court decision against Nawaz only increases support for him.

Not only was it good political maneuvering, but this decision of the SC provided much needed clarification on an ambiguous law. A nuanced discourse of contempt of court was welcome after extreme reactions from polarized sides. It does not do to call for a complete repeal of the contempt law, which is outlined in Article 204 of the constitution; in a country such as Pakistan, where the judiciary has been prone to attacks, the constitutional system of checks and balances works by placing corresponding obligations on participants of the State. Court decisions can and must be criticised, but the legitimacy and dignity of law should not be sacrificed. An analysis and comparison of the Nihal Hashmi situation with the Sharif one makes a compelling distinction between free speech and slander; criticising the Panama decision is a right, threatening the judiciary’s children is not.

Free discussion and debate and the ability to criticize are the foundation of the democratic exercise; the use of contempt of court as weapon to silence dissent infringes upon the very spirit of democracy. However, those arguments do not grant a political party the license to sacrifice the public’s trust in the legitimacy of law, by channeling a tirade against the judiciary, to fulfil its own political interests.