SC orders release of newsprint to Jang Group

Mir Shakil asked to file application for unfreezing of accounts; notices to respondents issued for Feb 9; FIA defies SC order on release of newsprint

By our correspondent

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Monday granted interim relief to the Jang Group by ordering the authorities to release newsprint, duties on which have already been paid. The interim relief to release 1,094 reels of newsprint to the Group was ordered with the condition that; "the bills of entry have been cleared out of charge and all the duties, charges and dues in respect thereof have already been paid". The apex court fixed February 9 for next hearing, as the relief to the country's largest group of newspapers -- Jang Group -- was subject to notice to the respondents/learned attorney general in the constitutional petition field by Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, Editor-in-Chief of the Jang Group and others.

Mir Shakil sought intervention of the apex court following a spate of moves initiated by the government to victimize and harass the Jang Group since August last year and using all kind of pressure tactics by the government to get 16 journalists of the Group sacked.

Though the victimisation and harassment of the Jang Group took a new dimension hours after the apex court granted relief to the Group, the petition by the Jang Group was taken up by a 3-member bench of the Supreme Court. The bench headed by Justice Khalil-ur-Rahman comprised Justice Sh Ijaz Nisar and Justice Muhammad Arif.

The FIA however, defied the Supreme Court order the same afternoon when it seized a truckload of newsreel in a very arrogant manner. The newsreel, duties on which had already been paid, was being taken to the Group's press when seized by the FIA.

With a jam-packed courtroom No 4 of the apex court, world renowned lawyer Sharifuddin Pirzada, and advocates Abid Hassan Minto, Makhdoom Ali Khan, Siraj, and Sh Masood Akhtar (advocate on record) appeared before the bench on behalf of the Jang Group, though only Pirzada argued on Monday on this major constitutional petition.

The petitioner enumerated the acts of arbitrary exercise of power by the respondents (Federation of Pakistan, Secretary Information and Broadcasting, Senator Saifur Rehman, DG FIA, and Central Board of Revenue), which resulted in gross violation of fundamental rights of the petitioners.

In its 6-page interim order, the court ordered the customs authorities to release 1,094 reels of newsprint provided that bills of entry have been cleared out of charge and all the duties, charges and dues in respect thereof have already been paid.

However, towards the end of the proceedings for the day, all requests by counsel for the Jang Group, Pirzada, and by Abdul Hameed Chapra, president Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), to unfreeze the bank accounts of the Group for paying salaries to the staff did not attract a favourable decision from the bench due to lack of records.

"Neither any order seizing the accounts has been placed on record nor any other necessary details are provided and in the circumstances we are not in a position to comment upon the alleged seizure of accounts or to issue any directions," said the order. "The petitioners, if so advised, may move appropriate application with necessary details." Justice Khalil-ur-Rahman assured that the application for unfreezing the accounts would be taken up on the following day.

The order said: "As regards 1,094 reels of newsprint, it was stated that duty has been paid and even the bills of entry were cleared but the same were detained by the Customs Appraising Intelligence Branch without as signing any reason. Payment of duties with regard to another lot of 384 reels of newsprint has been alleged though bill of entry has not been cleared out of charge."

Sharifuddin Pirzada also requested for a larger bench for consideration of the pleas. The court however, decided, "we, therefore, at this stage do not consider it appropriate to refer this matter to a larger bench as parties are yet to be heard on the question of maintainability of this petition".

This court, said the order, in Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari and others versus Federation of Pakistan and others (1998 SCMR 1616) has already held that the order under clause (2) of Article 23 of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 for suspending the enforcement of fundamental rights was not justified and the original order dated May 28, 1998 and the order dated July 13, 1998 varying the earlier order were without lawful authority." The order said, "Mir Shakeel-ur-Rahman (petitioner No 1), the chief executive and the companies (petitioners No 2 to 8) incorporated under the Companies Ordinance, commonly known as the Jang Group of Companies, have filed this Constitution petition under Article 184 (3) of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973 enumerating therein the alleged acts of arbitrary exercise of power by the respondents, which according to the petitioners, has resulted in gross violation of fundamental rights of the petitioners/companies.

"Mr Sharifuddin Pirzada, Senior Advocate, learned counsel for the petitioners, submitted that the petition raises issue of public importance relating to the interference of fundamental rights guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression of the press as well as other fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 18, 19, 24 and 25 read with Articles 2-A, 3 and 4 of the Constitution and the principles of policy enshrined in the Constitution.

"Learned counsel referred to Independent Newspapers Corporation (Pvt) Limited and another versus Chairman, Fourth Wage Board and implementation Tribunal for Newspaper Employees, Government of Pakistan, Islamabad and 2 others (1993 SCMR 1533) and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif versus President of Pakistan and others (PLD 1993 SC 473) and argued that the acts aimed at to cripple and destroy the newspapers of the Jang Group of Companies also constitute violation of the fundamental right of public at large to receive information.

It was added that the impugned actions of the respondents detailed in the memorandum of Constitution petition constitute matter of public interest and in the circumstances the Constitution petition under Article 184(3) of the Constitution is maintainable. "Learned counsel also submitted that as the issues of violation of fundamental right 19 and propriety of continuance of the emergency have been canvassed, it would be appropriate that this petition is heard by a larger Bench.

"The question whether the decision of the issues raised in the Constitution petition affects the rights of Jang Group of Companies only and not the rights and liberty of the public at large in order to assume the character of "public importance" as contemplated by Article 184(3) of the Constitution needs examination.

"Moreover, as the questions of interpretation of provisions of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been urged, notice in terms of Rule 1 of Order XXVII-A CPC has to be issued. Notice in terms of Order XXVII-A, Rule 1 of CPC therefore, be issued to the learned Attorney General for a date in office." The petition for its maintainability will be taken up on Feb 27.

The Jang Group's petition has been joined by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), All Pakistan Newspapers Employees Confederation (APNEC) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (Dastoor).

On PFUJ's request for unfreezing the bank accounts for paying salaries to the journalists, the court asked for the production of the order of income tax department under which the bank accounts were frozen. But this was not available at that point of time.

Justice Khalil-ur-Rahman ordered the management to submit the salaries bills and the amount needed for necessary expenses. He asked that the Jang Group had complaints against action of the income tax department but this had nothing to do with Article 184 of the Constitution.

Sharifuddin Pirzada contested this point by saying that this was a case of government pressure and threats which had figured in the Senate and the National Assembly where the Information Minister had offered to appoint a commission of media ombudsman to resolve the issue.

Pirzada, whose main emphasis was that it was a matter of great public importance and it involved freedom of press, said that Senator Saifur Rahman, who heads the Ehtesab Cell, had threatened that he could get a favourable decision from the judiciary. He said upholding the freedom of press was one of the duties of the judiciary and for this they had approached the apex court.

Pirzada also made references to many Pakistani and foreign cases which involved freedom of press, and how this issue assumed the character of public importance for which justice was sought from the apex court.

Chapra, who made repeated attempts that the court may unfreeze the bank accounts, said that the reputation of the Jang Group was that it always paid salaries to the staff on the first day of every month for which pay slips were issued a day earlier. "In this age of price hike, it would be extremely difficult for the workers to sustain the pressure as they have to clear their utility bills," he said.

Justice Khalil-ur-Rahman however, said that he wanted to hear the other party, as the respondents were not represented on Monday. He even did not pay heed to Pirzada's argument to unfreeze "reasonable accounts", if not all of them.



February 07, 1999
The News International Pakistan