A view from outside Pakistan's Supreme Court building in Islamabad. Photo: AFP / Aamir Queshi

Famous American writer Alice Duer Miller once said, “Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings.” 

In medieval times, contempt charges were used to protect the hegemony of monarchs and the religious elite. However, with the passage of time and the evolution of humankind, it was discovered that contempt or any kind of action that restricts people from raising questions on sensitive matters is negative for the growth of societies, and freedom of expression is the only way forward.

In countries where people are not able to think critically, contempt charges are used as shields by the powerful segments of society. Take for instance Pakistan, where religious clerics use contempt charges in the name of blasphemy, and it helps them attain the level of untouchables in society.

Likewise criticizing the military establishment for its flawed narratives is considered contempt, and treason charges can be applied to silence the dissenting voices.

The judiciary also has the contempt-of-court shield, and many judges who have intervened in the executive domain have used this law to protect themselves from treason charges.

Recently a senior Pakistani journalist, Matiullah Jan, was issued a notice of contempt of court by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Matiullah Jan in a tweet had criticized the seven judges who despite quashing the presidential reference against Justice Qazi Faez Isa ordered the Federal Board of Revenue to investigate the assets of his wife and children.

The Supreme Court issued a suo moto notice against Matiullah Jan, and now he will face the case against him. The question arises as to why the Supreme Court, which is the last authority to hear anyone’s plea, should take on a case like this first and not send cases of political nature to the lower courts first.

We already have seen how thrice-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif was denied justice as he was disqualified by the Supreme Court first and then the cases against him were sent to accountability courts.

In many countries, when federal or superior courts take up cases that are political in nature, they face stern criticism in the media if their verdicts or the judicial proceedings are thought to have been influenced by political parties that have a stake in the cases. But judges normally show restraint as they know that their verdicts affect the lives of the entire population. In fact, unless a serious threat or abuse is hurled toward the judges, they don’t even worry about criticism.

In contrast, in Pakistan, where the judiciary’s history is controversial and history is evidence that from validating martial laws to ousting elected prime ministers in haste, the judges want to remain above any criticism.

Just like any other normal human beings, judges sometimes behave unethically or illegally and their bias can be sensed and seen by the proceedings of a particular case.

For instance, former chief justice Saqib Nisar’s judicial activism and bias against Nawaz Sharif were not hidden from anyone, and the judgment against Sharif in the Panama Papers case is an example of a decision made in haste.

Likewise, the judges who ordered the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto are not respected widely in the country and many journalists still criticize them and their decision.

In fact, in the recent past, a malicious campaign was run against Justice Qazi Faez Isa by the controlled section of the press and pro-status-quo journalists, but no contempt notice was issued by the Supreme Court because Isa dared to give the judgments against the establishment.

And now Matiullah Jan has cited for contempt for simply tweeting against those judges who have already been criticized widely in the country for disqualifying Sharif through a dubious judicial decision.

So if journalists from now on will be accused of contempt of court on no basis but their tweets, then soon the jails won’t have sufficient room to hold all the journalists and others who openly criticize court verdicts.

This is not going to help the judiciary, as in the modern era no one can snatch the freedom of expression from journalists or the people. If judges want to be respected they should make respectable decisions.

An honorable judge always speaks through his decisions just like Isa has spoken through his judgment on the infamous Faizabad sit-in by Tehreek-e-Labbaik, or for that matter the chief justice of Peshawar High Court, Waqar Ahmed Seth, who is known for his bold judgments.

In fact the chief justice of Islamabad High Court, Athar Minallah, dismissed the petition against Matiullah Jan calling for initiating the contempt-of-court case. Minhulla in his verdict stated: “[Neither] the dignity of an independent judge nor his or her integrity is so frail and vulnerable so as to be harmed by a tweet on the social-media platform.”

This line from Minallah’s verdict should be read by the honorable Supreme Court, and it has to realize that journalists or even the masses have the right to raise concerns on court decisions or on the conduct of judges.

Judicial restraint always is the better option, and brave and upstanding judges never invoke contempt charges against dissenting voices. After all, if someone is giving verdicts according to the constitution and his conscience, he never feels threatened by his critics.

This correspondent has been criticizing the verdicts of judges and is of the view that the Supreme Court should not take up cases of political nature but let the lower judiciary deal with such matters. However, this does not mean that I have disrespect for judges or hate them for their decisions.

It is very common to have a different opinion, and in Matiullah Jan’s case, it is evident that he holds a different opinion than the seven judges who gave the verdict in Isa’s case. Then there comes another question as to why the superior judiciary instead of reading tweets or critical opinion pieces does not focus on instituting reforms in the lower judiciary, where millions of cases are still pending and where it takes decades for a common man to get a verdict in a legal case.

Respect is earned, it can never be taken by force or by laws like contempt of court. Objective and dissenting journalists have often been accused of treason or of being foreign agents, but strangely those journalists who speak in favor of the status quo and who actually assassinate the characters of political leaders and openly undermine parliament and democracy are never held accountable.

Criticism if made in a civilized manner is a healthy thing for individuals and societies and one can learn the art of facing criticism from the dissenting journalists who are termed traitors and face threats to their financial well-being or even their lives but still stick to their obligation of reporting the facts or stating their opinions.

No one respects the late chief justice Muhammad Munir or Saqib Nisar, as history is the most honest judge and it never forgets the wrongdoings of a dictator, a political leader, or a judge. No one can charge history with contempt of court, and this is the lesson every institution and person in Pakistan needs to learn.

Press freedom has been shrinking and propagandists under the guise of journalists are brainwashing the masses. Under these circumstances, only a very weak institution or individual will bother to care about dissenting voices who actually are few in number and have no power other than showing their dissent with the help of a pen or a microphone.

It is time to move on, and if the judiciary cannot correct its history, it at least can focus its energy on reforming the judicial system instead of charging dissenting journalists with contempt.  

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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