IN the interest of justice, there are times when restraint is prudent and desirable. The Supreme Court bench hearing the Hudaibya Paper Mills reference has quite reasonably barred TV talk shows from discussing the case and ordered Pemra to ensure that its directives are implemented. Pemra in turn has issued instructions to television channels to refrain from airing live shows on the Hudaibya case, warning them that any violations will be dealt with under the Pemra Ordinance 2002. It has, however, said that factual reporting of court proceedings, as opposed to analysis or discussion, is allowed. While the apex court has on earlier occasions alluded to the unbridled media coverage of high-profile cases being adjudicated upon, most recently during the hearings into the Panama Papers case, this is perhaps the first time it has taken such a firm stance on the issue.
One wishes the court had acted much earlier: it would have prevented many hours of unrestrained speculation presented as expert opinion — even from those with little or no legal knowledge — in sub judice cases. For instance, a circus-like atmosphere prevailed in the Panama Papers case, with court reporters having barely finished recounting the session’s proceedings before analysts would be invited to weigh in on television channels with their views. Evening talk shows featured wall-to-wall discussions on the case, anticipating the course of the trial or predicting the ultimate outcome, their opinions often based solely on the judges’ observations during the hearings. Reporting restrictions in sub judice cases are based on sound logic: what is published or aired during a trial can create judicial bias or influence a witness and thereby impede the course of justice. Flouting these restrictions can also amount to a trial by media of the accused, in which emotion and prejudice drive the premature assumption of innocence or guilt. Pakistan, with its ratings-obsessed electronic media that provides a platform for unfettered political discourse — particularly uncouth in the run-up to an election — is no stranger to this phenomenon. Freedom of speech is not an unqualified right, something that is already implicitly recognised by the provisions against hate speech and the incitement of violence in the codes of conduct that the electronic and print media have formulated for themselves. Media organisations should also independently issue guidelines for their journalists to follow while covering ongoing legal proceedings. Fact should take precedence over opinion until the verdict is in.