Contempt proceedings against Pakistani journalists who investigated judicial collusion
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Islamabad High Court to drop its contempt proceedings against the two newspaper journalists and the newspaper’s owner for publishing a former judge’s leaked affidaviat revealing alleged judicial collusion to deny bail to leading opposition politicians who were jailed on the eve of the 2018 general elections.
“I verified my sources,” Ansar Abbasi, an investigative reporter with The News International newspaper, told RSF. But his insistence that he acted professionally did not suffice to deter High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah from initiating contempt of court proceedings yesterday against him, against the newspaper’s editor, Aamir Ghauri, and against Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jang Group, which owns the newspaper.
The proceedings were prompted by an article by Abbasi on 15 November reporting that Rana Shamim, the former chief justice of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, had signed an affidavit stating that, shortly before the July 2018 general elections, he heard Pakistan’s then chief justice, Mian Saqib Nisar, pressure an Islamabad High Court judge to deny bail to leaders of the conservative opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), who had just been jailed.
In a written statement submitted to the court this month, Shamim denied sharing the affidavit to anyone and said he “laid the entire blame” for the leak on Abbasi.
Affair of state
“The information revealed by Ansar Abbasi and The News International shines a light on public interest issues that are absolutely fundamental to the rule of law in Pakistan,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We call on Justice Athar Minallah to rise to the challenge of this affair of state by immediately abandoning the proceedings against The News International’s journalists. Both respect for press freedom and judicial independence – two pillars of democracy that are routinely endangered by pressure from Pakistan’s all-powerful military – are at stake in this case.”
Pakistan’s military establishment is widely suspected of manipulating the July 2018 elections to ensure that Imran Khan could become prime minister. Nineteen days before the elections, an accountability court suddenly sentenced three of the PML-N’s long-standing leaders to prison terms ranging from one to ten years. As a result of an appeal filed by their lawyers, the court’s decision could have been suspended and they could have been released.
As it was, the appeal was only considered after the elections, conceivably affecting their outcome. Such are the disturbing political implications of this alleged case of corruption at the top of the Pakistani judiciary exposed by Abbasi’s story in The News International.
The newspaper Dawn reported that, during yesterday’s hearing, Abbasi said he verified the affidavit’s contents with Shamim the day before the story was published. “Rana Shamim also [messaged] me that what I read out was correct,” Abbasi added.
Ghauri, the newspaper’s editor, said it was the public interest that determined the decision to publish. “We have to look at the public interest,” he said. “It is not our job to see if the document is correct.”
The third target of these contempt of court proceedings, publisher Shakil-ur-Rehman, already spent eight months in prison last year, before finally being released on bail in November 2020. At the time of his arrest in March 2020, RSF demonstrated the spurious nature of the charges used to jail him.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.