One finds it inexplicable that given the obvious holes and weaknesses in the NAB prosecutors’ arguments ably exposed by Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan and Advocate Amjad Parvez in hearings held separately by the Lahore High Court and the Accountability Court on 7th April, 2020, both levels of the Judiciary were unwilling to accept bail petitions for Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman.
Almost a whole month has lapsed since 12th March when the Editor-in-Chief of Jang/ The News/ Geo was taken into custody on charges that reflect a desperate and, if not, also an amusing determination to intimidate a major independent media personality. Amusing because the allegations date back to about 34 years. This marks a span in which several both civil and military-led governments have had strong complaints against Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman’s media group for perceived or real biases, distortions et al.
And yet none could dredge up this particular transaction to use for coercive or retributive purposes. Amusing, but also perversely re-assuring, because this proves that, despite our bureaucracy’s capacity to conveniently lose or misplace files, in certain categories, specific documents can always be found.
Perhaps the judiciary’s congenital dependence on, and respect for paper is a principal reason why, even in a third hearing in about four weeks, NAB has been allowed to cite a particular document to initiate proceedings.
NAB was permitted to tender vacuous pretexts for its request to further extend the remand: a map of Johar Town is still awaited from LDA! Some papers fly high — or lie buried deep — for over 3 decades but arrive right on time when someone needs them. While other related documents curiously take days and weeks to move from one office to another in the very same city. Nawaz Sharif as Chief Minister did dole out umpteen favours to his faithfuls. But one is not certain whether he did so in this instance, and doubt whether Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman sought such a favour. What is not in doubt is the memory this writer, in a citizen’s capacity, of joining Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and hundreds of others in a procession from the Karachi Press Club during Nawaz Sharif’s second term as Prime Minister, 1997-1999 to vigorously protest official threats to Press freedom.
One is convinced that the judiciary has unwisely chosen excessive restraint. Notwithstanding the observations of the High Court and the Accountability Court to the effect that rejection of bail petitions does not reflect an opinion on the tenability of the charges, surely the judiciary is aware of what is crystal clear to most citizens, schooled or unschooled in the niceties of law. This is a crude, blatant attempt to intimidate, persecute and punish the head of the country’s largest independent media group for its own alleged — as well as real — excesses in exercising freedom of expression.
Irrespective of whether at the next hearings Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman obtains bail or NAB is again permitted to trot out feeble excuses. In times when the media already face extraordinary problems — and also require serious self-reform by themselves, or by parliamentary legislation — and at a time when the coronavirus crisis confronts our country with an unprecedented challenge — official mechanisms and legal posturing are allowed to suspend an individual’s freedom and bully a whole group and sector. In conclusion, it can safely be said that the ball is now in the court’s court.
The writer is a former Senator and former Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting.