Pakistan: Long walk to justice for journalists


ISLAMABAD: After reaching the capital’s district judiciary early morning, Saqib Bashir walked past several courtrooms and lawyers’ chambers dotting Islamabad’s F-8 Markaz.

Walking inside the narrow streets of the market turned into the subordinate judiciary and after taking several turns, he finally settled into a brisk stride.

He walked past lawyers opening chambers and their associates switching on computers and setting up typewriters before new or old clients showed up.

Bashir, a journalist, quickened his pace. The judge expected him before 8:30am. He along with other journalists had reached well before time but only to hear that the police needed more time to submit a reply in connection with his application seeking registration of an FIR against an assistant commissioner (AC) and several policemen on charges of manhandling journalists inside the Islamabad High Court’s premises when PTI Chairman Imran Khan appeared before court on February 28.

The judge adjourned the case till 10:00am.

The small courtroom functioning in a makeshift shop was packed with journalists, lawyers and a few policemen once again when the judge took up Bashir and others 22-A application filed under Criminal Procedure Code seeking court’s help to register case against the officials, who “illegally” restrained journalists from performing their duties and threw them out of court premises the other day.

A law officer representing the police, Tahir Kazim, hurriedly presented a police report coupled with dozens of screenshots of journalists tweeting about the incident and raising voice for the registration of a case before Additional District and Sessions Judge Tahir Abbas Sipra, who took some time to read the report after adjusting his spectacles.

Strangely, days after thrashing and misbehaving with journalists, the law officer apprised the judge that no case could be registered against the AC and policemen as they were merely performing their duties when they forcefully expelled the journalists.

Besides, he said, a case has already been registered against PTI workers and journalists should record their statements in that case – as if there is no difference between the journalists and the party workers, who barged into IHC with Imran Khan’s vehicle.

Somewhat irked by the arguments of the law officer, Judge Sipra questioned why police has not booked the journalists if they were accused of trespassing and holding “unlawful assembly” when Imran appeared before the high court.

“We are still considering that,” the officer replied sheepishly. “12 days have already passed and you haven’t yet figured out if police should proceed against the journalists or an FIR should be registered on their application,” the judge commented.

With the court’s permission, Bashir also spoke.

He emphasised that pen is the journalists’ strength, highlighted the stresses of the profession and expressed that the incident at IHC has set a bad precedent for the future.

Urging the court to not let the hope of getting justice fade away, he questioned in a dejected tone “if journalists don’t get justice, it will affect their professional duties in the future”.

His arguments have come on the heels of assurances given by the interior and law ministers – Rana Sanaullah and Azam Nazir Tarar – as well as a special assistant to the Prime Minister – Ata Tarar – that FIR of the incident would soon be registered, but to no avail.

Bashir’s counsel Zahid Asif argued that the officials “illegally restrained journalists” as neither any direction was issued if the proceedings were in-camera or only a limited number of journalists were allowed to cover nor the pressmen violated any law before being attacked inside the IHC.

In his arguments, Asif said that officials’ actions attracted four sections, 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 356 (assault or criminal force in an attempt to commit theft of property carried by a person), 337-L (punishment for other hurt), and 382 (theft after preparation made for causing death, hurt or restraint in order to the committing of the theft) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Besides, Asif argued, no inquiry could be conducted into an incident before registering an FIR.

To counter Kazim’s argument that journalists should record their version of events in the FIR registered against PTI workers, Asif questioned if the police would register a single FIR of two separate incidents like a murder and a snatching taking place at IHC’s premises when both the events were totally different.

Also, Asif maintained, no inquiry can be conducted before registering an FIR. He also rebutted the police’s claim that journalists entered from the judges’ entrance, saying the police “lied” and tried to mislead the court.

The counsel showed footage of the incident to counter police claims further and to narrate the incident. He highlighted the contradictory stance taken by AC and police in their statements, saying AC was inside the court premises while police said he was outside.

“How can police investigate the matter without registration of FIR,” he questioned, saying a reverse process was adopted.

Kazim replied that the 22-A application allowed the police to probe the matter, emphasising that two occurrences took place at the same time and since two separate FIRs of the same incident cannot be registered, the police is ready to record journalists’ statements in the FIR already registered against the PTI workers.

The judge while agreeing with the police version, later, ordered the Ramna police station to bring Bashir’s application on record in the case already registered under terrorism charges, record his version and proceed in accordance with the law before disposing of the matter.

Following the ruling, Bashir trudged back from the district courts, feeling it was challenging to stay