Journalists are the voice of the voiceless, remarks IHC in journalists harassment case

Urdu version of the story here.

September 20, 2021 –  In a hearing in Islamabad High Court (IHC), Additional Attorney General Qasim Wadud informed the court that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has accepted the error it made in issuing notice to senior journalist and former PEMRA chairperson Absar Alam under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016. Wadud informed that the notice from FIA has been revoked and the case against Absar Alam has been closed.

Wadud requested the Court that now that FIA has closed the case, the Court should also dismiss the case against FIA that was registered by Absar Alam for issuing the notice to him. However,  while rejecting the request, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah said that this case will be heard alongside the pending cases regarding FIA’s notices to journalists, and will be heard on September 27.

During the hearing, Chief Justice Athar Minallah questioned FIA and asked why the notice was issued in the first place. He remarked that FIA should only issue notices under PECA after it has trained its officers to implement the law, and further said that arbitrarily issuing these notices can be seen as unnecessary harassment of journalists.

Lawyer Usman Warraich who is representing Absar Alam in the Court, asked that FIA should inform them of the premise on which the notice was issued to his client. The Court responded that since the FIA has accepted that it was a mistake, it is important that the agency now improve it processes as well. The Court iterated that the case by Absar Alam is not being closed yet and will be heard alongside other cases against FIA on September 27.

Chief Justice Athar Minallah further remarked that FIA must not harass journalists because it will have negative impact on the freedom of expression which is a matter of utmost fundamental right. He said that journalists become the voice of those who do not have a voice, and it is the responsibility of the state to protect citizens’ freedom of expression. Justice Athar Minallah said that it is expected that FIA will improve in this matter in the future.
Additional Attorney General told the Court that SOPs under Section 20 of PECA that criminalises defamation have also been developed. In a hearing on September 16 challenging the notices issued to journalists, a detailed report analysing Section 20 submitted by Judicial Assistant Advocate Adnan Randhawa to IHC requested the Court to declare Section 20 unconstitutional and in violation of freedom of expression.
The IHC, in today’s hearing, adjourned the case until September 27, when the case from journalist Bilal Ghauri and various other journalists will be heard. The Court has already directed FIA to submit a report along with SOPs regarding use of powers given to the agency under the cybercrime act. It has also questioned FIA regarding arbitrary issuance of notices to journalists in the country, and asked why these notices are being issued without giving concrete reasons.
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