SLAMABAD (AFP/Reuters) - Pakistan’s judges are using contempt of court laws to stop the media from criticising the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday, warning they risked being seen as ‘instruments of coercion and censorship’.

High courts in Islamabad and Lahore have issued a series of orders in recent months seeking to block television shows critical of judges, the New York-based campaign group said.

Last month a judge in Islamabad ordered media regulator to stop television channels broadcasting programmes in which the “person of the honourable chief justice of Pakistan and other honourable judges of the superior court are criticised, ridiculed, and defamed,” HRW said. Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said judges should not enjoy special immunity from criticism.

“Unless they want to be seen as instruments of coercion and censorship, they should immediately revoke these curbs on free expression,” he said.

As part of a long-running tussle over corruption allegations against President Asif Ali Zardari, the Supreme Court in June threw then-prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani out of office after finding him guilty of contempt. The move was criticised by some as a “judicial coup”.

“Pakistan’s judges have demonstrated the independence to hold the government accountable,” Adams said.

“But their credibility will be lost so long as they fight against scrutiny and accountability of the judiciary itself.” Supreme Court officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The judiciary, led by Justice Chaudhry, has become a power center in Pakistan’s young democracy that has been ruled by the military for more than half its 65-year history.

The Supreme Court has about 20,000 cases pending and there is a backlog of about 1.4 million cases nationally, according to a US State Department report.

Of those cases that reach court, only 5-10 per cent result in conviction, according to a 2010 report by the International Crisis Group on reforming the justice system. Prosecutors are underpaid and overwhelmed and judges rely almost entirely on oral statements rather than physical evidence.