The sudden “disappearance” and quick reappearance of journalist Matiullah Jan in the space of half a day merit closer examination to determine causes and consequences.
Mati, as he is fondly known, has rarely shied away from speaking truth to power. Indeed, he is an equal opportunity offender, castigating those among his own herd for capitulation or corruption no less than seeking bipartisan accountability of businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, judges and generals. All too often, consequently, he has had to pay a high price for his forthright opinions. He has served as a reporter, anchor and analyst on half a dozen media platforms before being eased out for being unpalatable to the “powers-that-be”, eventually having to clutch at Social Media to save his voice from being drowned out. Of late, however, his powerful detractors have sought to deny even this platform to him.
Mati’s latest “crime” is to expose the attempt by the Miltablishment to oust Supreme Court Judge Qazi Faez Isa – a fierce defender of constitutional democracy – for daring to criticize its unaccountable or unconstitutional actions in a couple of important cases. The good judge could not be ignored because he is in line to become the Chief Justice of Pakistan in a couple of years when he might lend his liberal, pro-civil society opinions to tilt the scales of the SC towards greater independence and transparency. Justice Isa could not be swept aside like Justice Shaukat Siddiqui, a judge of the Islamabad High Court who also stepped on the toes of the Miltablishment, because Siddiqui was widely perceived as an embarrassment for the bar and bench and thereby lost their support. By contrast, Justice Isa is the embodiment of exactly what an upright, intelligent and independent judge should be, for which he enjoys great popularity in the bar and large swathes of media and public opinion.
Unfortunately, the SC under ex-CJP Saqib Nisar and ex-CJP Asif Saeed Khosa has delivered some poor judgments widely perceived as politically biased against the PMLN and in favour of the Miltablishment and its political puppets. That is why the attempt to knock out Justice Isa via a Presidential Reference to the Supreme Judicial Council of the SC for misconduct has faced fierce popular resistance from the outset and put his brother judges in the spotlight. Mati’s relentless analysis and exposure of the frailties of the trial has exposed him to the wrath of powerful quarters. The irony is that he was scheduled to attend a hearing in the SC the day following his kidnapping to answer charges of contemning the court by remarks he made on social media.
Clearly, therefore, the object of the exercise was to “soften” him up so that he would meekly apologise to the SC the next day and desist from undermining the plan to knock out Justice Isa. The kidnapping was also meant to send a strong message of deterrence to other dissenters. The act was deliberately carried out in broad daylight in full view of cameras in front of a school with much coming and going instead of surreptitiously in some deserted place in order to stress the invincibility of the kidnappers who feared no possible investigation or accountability.
As it happens, however, the kidnappers miscalculated on two fronts. There was a huge outcry at home and abroad, the net result of it being to shift the spotlight from Mati’s misfortune to the judiciary’s independence and the state’s accountability. The Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court swiftly ordered the Islamabad administration to produce Mati or explain its role in the matter, compelling the Chief Justice of Pakistan to also put the Administration on the mat. More worrying for the plotters, Mati walked into the SC the next day, seemingly determined to stand his ground, an outcome that is exactly the opposite of what was premeditated.
The SC has adjourned the contempt indictment by two weeks because Mati has told the court he intends to contest it through a good lawyer instead of meekly admitting guilt and apologizing. To be sure, there will be a surplus of top lawyers lining up to defend him gratis. The case is no longer about an objectionable tweet or video, it has become a matter of free speech and fundamental rights under the constitution that will question the very bedrock of the law of contempt in relation to the conduct of the judiciary as it is practiced in Pakistan and elsewhere. It may also highlight the weaknesses of the case against Justice Isa. The choice for the SC is to convict Mati, make him a bigger hero and face public opprobrium or to let him off the hook by emphasizing the supremacy of fundamental rights and freedoms.
This move by Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s detractors has backfired just like the earlier Presidential Reference against him. Meanwhile, media barons and journalists would do well to learn the right lesson from this episode, that is, to stand up and continue to speak truth to power.