There are around 40 functional judges at the Lahore High Court. On any given working day, around 30 hear cases at the principal seat here. A court reporter must daily survey what cases are up for hearing, assess which ones are of import to the reader of their newspaper or viewer of their channel, and then quickly seek enough information on them to file a comprehensive report before their deadline.
A reporter can only attend one hearing at a time, but there are usually several cases that must be reported on each day. For these, one must rely on lawyers and court staffers with information of the relevant case. Keeping abreast of all the cases at the LHC is a major challenge, one that even the most seasoned court watcher must confront daily.
Last week, an honourable judge of the LHC made this challenge all the greater, at least for those working in print media.
On July 5, several television channels reported that at a hearing that day, the court had removed Dr Rizwan Naseer, the head of the Punjab Emergency Services (Rescue 1122), from his post as chairman of the Fire Safety Commission because of failures associated with the LDA Plaza fire in May. The next day, the same reports appeared in several newspapers.
The reports, it turned out, were not true. The Fire Safety Commission chairman had not been removed. The source of the erroneous reports was Advocate Noshab A Khan, the petitioner in the case involving the Fire Safety Commission. The lawyer had ‘briefed’ reporters on the proceedings of July 5, after which the false reports appeared.
At the next hearing of the case on July 11, the judge expressed displeasure at the misreporting. And on July 23, he ordered newspapers to carry a correction and submit a copy of the printed correction to the court registrar. This is standard practice for when newspapers make mistakes and the court was clearly justified in directing the media to correct its mistakes.
But the judge went further. He directed newspaper editors to make sure that in future, no report regarding court orders is published prior to verification from the LHC public relations officer or media cell, or before a written order is obtained. Oddly, his instructions were directed solely at reporters for the print media, not the electronic media.
For a daily reporter, this is tantamount to being gagged. Under this order, not only can they no longer rely on information gained from court staff, advocates and law officers, but they can also not file stories based on what they have seen or heard in court in person.
Being forced to wait for written orders or confirmation from the media cell or PRO means forgetting about carrying stories that are current and relevant. In most cases, written orders do not come out of chambers on the same day that they are pronounced.
The pace at which written orders are issued can be gauged from an incident last year when the LHC granted bail to a man accused of murder two weeks ahead of Eidul Azha. Its written order took a while coming. A week after the hearing, the bail petitioner’s counsel approached the judge, daring to ask for the written order so his client could go home. The judge told him off, saying it was up to him to issue the written order. The petitioner died before Eid, still waiting for the written order.
That’s why reporters often have to rely on lawyers to get updates. Should a lawyer deliberately mislead the media, perhaps to seek an advantage in his case, one might suggest that it is he who should be taken to task in order to serve as a deterrent. This way, rather than limiting the sources of information available to the press, the court would be limiting sources of misinformation.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2013.