Freedom of the press

Jang Group, journalists'unions move Supreme Court

Jang Group challenges govt's arbitrary actions

Terms stoppage of govt advertisements unconstitutional ; seeks cancelation of income tax notices; restoration of frozen accounts and release of newsprint

By our correspondent

ISLAMABAD: The Jang group and journalist's unions filed petitions in the Supreme Court on Wednesday seeking relief against the government's efforts to stifle the freedom of press in Pakistan.

The petition filed on behalf of Mir Shakilur Rehman, chief executive of the Jang group of companies, outlines the arbitrary actions that the government has taken during the past seven months to prevent newspapers from presenting facts to their readers.

The petition names the ministries of interior and information, Chairman Ehtesab Bureau, Senator Saifur Rahman, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and the Central Board of Revenue (CBR) as respondents. Advocate Abid Hasan Minto, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, is representing the Jang group.

The petitioner has prayed the Honourable Court to: Declare that the government's arbitrary actions against the Jang group and the individuals associated with it are malafide and without lawful authority. They violate the fundamental right of freedom of press and expression guaranteed under article 19 of the constitution.

Direct the government to immediately stop the entire victimisation campaign against the Jang group of newspapers, its companies, directors and employees. Declare the arbitrary withholding of government advertisements to the newspapers as violating fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution.

Direct the ministry of information to immediately restore government advertisements to the Jang group as before and on the basis of a clear and transparent policy. Direct the ministry to formulate equitable policy for a just distribution of government advertisement to newspapers.

Direct Senator Saifur Rahman to refrain from monitoring and supervising the petitioners. Stop him from pursuing a victimisation campaign against the Jang group or any other newspaper. Prohibit the FIA from raiding any offices of the petitioners and from registering false cases or conducting investigations against them.

Quash all malafide orders and show cause notices by the income tax, wealth tax and customs authorities issued on the dictation of Senator Saifur Rahman. Direct the CBR and the functionaries working under it to immediately release the newsprint.

Direct the respondents not to interfere in any professional work or the editorial and personnel policies of the newspapers, magazines and publications of the petitioners. Direct the respondents not to institute or initiate any action against the Jang group of newspapers, companies or its directors or personnel pending decisions of this petition without intimation to and permission of the Supreme Court.

Direct the CBR to prohibit investigation in all pending tax matters of the petitioners by biased officials acting under the dictation of Senator Saifur Rahman. No assessment or any order in any tax matter relating to the petitioners should be passed without first obtaining permission from the court.

Direct the interior and information ministries to allow proper access to journalists to all government records and the records of subordinate offices and authorities for the proper information and reporting of news.

The petition says that the Jang group has always been objective in the evaluation of the performance of any government. It has pursued the same consistent policy of objectivity while writing about the activities of the present government. The prime and paramount consideration of the Jang group has always been the dissemination of objective information in the larger public and national interest.

"This is done irrespective of the fact that the news may displease the government, such as news about the deteriorating law and order situation and terrorism," the petitions says. "Despite its best efforts to ensure a smooth relationship with the present government without compromising on its principles, during the last several months the respondents have launched a campaign of vilification, intimidation and harassment against the Jang group. This campaign is motivated by the fact that the petitioners have refused to accept the respondents' unjustified demands to tailor their news, views and editorial policy as well as the coverage and display of news and information to suit the desires and wishes of the respondents."

"The respondents also asked the petitioners to dismiss several senior and renowned journalists including Irshad Ahmad Haqqani, Maleeha Lodhi and Kamran Khan. The petitioners have been clearly informed that this malicious campaign would be relentlessly pursued unless all the journalists on the hit list of the respondents are fired and the petitioners cover events, and comment upon issues, according to the dictates and desires of the respondents."

"The respondents have clearly stated that even if the petitioners give in to these demands, the respondents will monitor their 'performance' for a few months before withdrawing various notices issued, proceedings commenced and prosecutions launched. Being aggrieved of the campaign launched against them, the petitioners prefer this petition before this Honourable Court."

"In view of the constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights, and the dynamic interpretation of these rights by this Honourable Court in a number of cases, the petitioners, who are the victims of arbitrary exercise of power resulting in gross violation of fundamental rights, have filed this petition."

The petition raises several issues of public importance about the freedom of speech and expression and other fundamental rights. These include the right of the dignity of man (article 14), the freedom of trade (article 18), the right to hold property (article 24), and the right to equality before law and the right to equal protection of law (article 25).

The petition also raises several important questions about the style of governance of the present rulers that clash with the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution. They are:

A. Whether the power conferred by law on the respondents can be exercised in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution?

B. Whether the freedom of press guaranteed under article 19 of the constitution permits the respondents or their agents to interfere with the rights and obligations of the editors, publishers and printers of the newspapers?

C. Whether the freedom of the press provides freedom from arbitrary interference by the respondents in determining the personnel and editorial policies of the newspapers?

D. Whether the arbitrary and capricious demands raised by the respondents for the dismissal of particular journalists is compatible with the freedom of speech, expression and the press guaranteed under article 19 and the dignity of man guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution?

E. Whether the machinery of the state can be used to penalize, intimidate and harass the newspapers for reporting and commenting on the acts and conduct of public officials and government functionaries? Is such action compatible with the rights guaranteed in the constitution?

F. Whether the arbitrary distribution of government and semi-government advertisements to different newspapers by the information ministry is compatible with the guarantees provided in the constitution?

G. Whether restraints imposed on the newspapers by arbitrary control over the supply of newsprint by the government also violates these guarantees?

H. Whether statutory functionaries are constrained by the limits of the prescribed law under which they function? Can they take any action against the petitioners, without any legal constraints, solely because they are perceived by the respondents to be critical of the government? Can they violate fundamental rights of the petitioners for this reason alone?

I. Are functionaries of the tax department required to observe the provisions of the law while probing allegation of tax evasion? Can they unleash a reign of terror on the dictation or direction of the respondents against any person as is now being done against the Jang group?

J. Do the proceedings against the Jang group, held in undue haste and in a most arbitrary manner, violate the petitioners' fundamental rights of due process of law and access to impartial and independent quasi judicial fora?

K. Whether the imposition of emergency under article 232 has the effect of suppressing the fundamental rights mentioned in article 233 (1), including those mentioned in articles 18 and 19? Will this suppression of fundamental rights apply in all matters or the latter article shall only be applied in circumstances having a nexus with the grounds upon which emergency has been proclaimed?

L. Can the assertion of fundamental rights against executive actions be thwarted on the ground of application of article 232 read with article 233 (1), even if the impugned actions are tainted with malafides?

M. Can the state take an executive action without the sanction of law merely on account of the application of article 232 read with articles 233(1) of the Constitution and whether such impugned actions are sustainable at all?

N. Are the grounds upon which emergency was proclaimed on May 28, 1998 and was upheld by the Supreme Court on July 28, 1998, still available? Is it not the time to re-examine the continuance of emergency?

The News International Pakistan