Global Freedom of Expression

Shahid Akbar Abbasi v. Chief Commissioner

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    July 20, 2020
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Motion Granted, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Injunction or Order Granted
  • Case Number
    W.P. 1969/2020
  • Region & Country
    Pakistan, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
  • Tags
    Violence

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Islamabad High Court, in a Habeas Corpus petition filed in connection with the abduction of journalist Matiullah Jan, directed the Federal Government to carry out the investigation into the abduction, with transparency and diligence so as to apprehend those who “attempted to terrorize journalists as a class” [para 6]. The High Court stated that the perpetrators of his abduction should be dealt with “in a manner so that no journalist in the country fears to be harmed for exposing the truth” [para. 6]. Matiullah Jan, a vocal critic of the Pakistan government, army and establishment, was abducted a day before he was scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court in a contempt of court case regarding a tweet he posted on social media. He was abducted in broad daylight, by a group of men – some in uniform and some in plain clothes, and his abduction was caught on CCTV camera. He was tortured and threatened for about nine hours. After his abduction, Matiuallah Jan’s brother, Shahid Akbar Abbasi filed a Habeas Corpus Petition before the Islamabad High Court, seeking his release forthwith. Matiullah Jan was released by the perpetrators after about 12 hours of abduction, and before the judgment was passed by the Islamabad High Court. Following Matiullah Jan’s release, the matter came up before the High Court on July 22, 2020. Noting the importance of Matiullah Jan’s profession as a journalist, and the role of the press as a watchdog, the High Court held that the State must “demonstrably show that there is a political will to put an end to impunity for crimes against citizens and to protect journalists from harm from exercising the right to free speech” [para. 5].


Facts

Journalist Matiullah Jan is a vocal critic of the Government and Army in Pakistan. On July 10, 2021, Matiullah Jan posted an allegedly contemptuous tweet, in relation to a decision of a 7 judge bench of the Supreme Court in which the Supreme Court directed a probe into Justice Isa’s family’s properties in the UK, by the Federal Board of Revenue. Matiullah Jan believes that Justice Isa was being targeted due to a ruling he had given the year before, in which he had criticized Pakistan Army’s involvement in the country’s political affairs. 

Against Matiullah Jan’s tweet, contempt of court proceedings were initiated before the Islamabad High Court, which was dismissed on July 15, 2020. On the same day, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the tweet, and brought separate contempt charges against Matiullah Jan. This hearing was scheduled to take place on July 22, 2020. 

The morning of July 21, 2020, Matiullah Jan was abducted from outside the premises of the school where his wife works. His abduction was caught on CCTV camera. He was attacked and abducted by uniformed and non-uniformed men. When he asked why he was being abducted, and whether there was a warrant for his detention, he was punched and struck on the head with a rifle. He was physically and mentally tortured and threatened for about nine hours. He was blind-folded, beaten with a wooden stick on his legs and back, and punched on the head. He was then driven to and left at an unknown location, by the side of a deserted road. Matiullah Jan believes that he was abducted in connection with the contempt case which was scheduled to be heard the next day by the Supreme Court. 

The day Matiullah Jan was arrested, his brother, Shahid Akbar Abbasi, filed a Habeas Corpus petition at the Islamabad High Court seeking his release. He believes that Matiullah Jan was abducted in connection with his reporting and critique of the Government and the establishment. Given the seriousness of the matter, the High Court issued notice to the concerned public officials on the same day. 


Decision Overview

Chief Justice Minallah delivered the judgment of the High Court. 

The sole issue examined by the High Court was the circumstances in which Matiullah Jan was abducted, and the status of the investigation pursuant thereto. 

At the outset, the Petitioner alleged that based on the circumstances in which Matiullah Jan was abducted, this would constitute a prima facie case of enforced disappearance. The Court agreed with the Petitioner’s claim. 

The Deputy Inspector General of the Islamabad Police stated that the investigations in connection with Matiullah Jan’s abduction were ongoing and that no stones were being left unturned to apprehend and prosecute the abductors. Despite this assurance, the High Court expressed its concern regarding the increasing impunity in crimes against journalists and their reporting. 

The Court categorically stated that impunity for crimes against journalists was grimly looked upon by the world around because of the effect it had on society and the fundamental rights of the general public. Noting the importance of Matiullah Jan’s profession, the High Court held that even a perception of State involvement in crimes against journalists was sufficient to create a chilling effect on free speech, in fear of State backlash. The Court said that even such perception was also violative of the general public’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, free press and a citizen’s right to access information of public importance, as has been enshrined in Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973. The High Court explicitly stated that it is the duty of the State to dispel with such a perception that the State is suppressing lawful journalistic reporting. It held that, insofar as free speech does not constitute hate speech, it is an important attribute of a civilized society. 

While highlighting the importance of free speech, the Court observed that “suppression of free speech leads to regressive societies” [para. 4]. The Court noted that a free press acted as a watchdog, and thereby any interference “with its ability to disseminate information and hold the State and its institutions accountable definitely denies to the people the enjoyment of their rights” [para. 4]. The Court further held that it is a free press that enables a society to prosper, since the “truth, and knowing the truth is a panacea for poverty, erosion of rule of law, regression and chaos” [para. 4].

The High Court reiterated that it is for the Federal Government to “demonstrably show that there is a political will to put an end to impunity for crimes against citizens and to protect journalists from harm for exercising the right of free speech” [para. 5]. Mere registration of cases without affirmative action is insufficient. The Court held that this would be an important “test case” for the Government to lay down strong precedent to show that neither were they involved in the crime, nor were they complacent with the crime. The Court also stated that the rule of law ought to be so strong that crimes of such nature are not committed in the first place. 

In conclusion the High Court affirmed that it was confident that the Federal Government would take steps to ensure that “those who had attempted to terrorize the journalists as a class and the public at large” [para. 6] would be apprehended. In particular, the perpetrators of this crime of abduction of Matiullah Jan would be made an example of, to deter others from committing such crimes. The High Court emphatically stated that it expected the investigation in the matter to be carried out with transparency and diligence, such that “no journalist in the country fears to be harmed for exposing the truth” [para. 6].  

Further, when contempt proceedings were taken up by the Supreme Court on July 22, 2020, the Supreme Court made inquiries about Matiullah Jan’s abduction, and asked the police to submit a report in this regard. The Supreme Court however used the term ‘alleged’ abduction. In addition, the Supreme Court reportedly said that no institution or agency had the right to take the law into its own hands. The Supreme Court also expressed its dissatisfaction  about the police not having recorded Matiullah Jan’s statement as soon as he was released by his abductors. In subsequent hearings in this matter, the Supreme Court reportedly expressed its dissatisfaction at the status of police investigation in the abduction case. As per the police report filed, investigations were underway, and a Special Investigation Team had been set up to look into the matter. The report said that the police were awaiting responses/ reports from various other departments from whom they had sought assistance. In response to the police’s report in the matter, the Supreme Court reportedly said that the report was not satisfactory and that the police chief did not know how to investigate the case. The Supreme Court directed that the matter be assigned to a competent officer, and granted the police one month’s time to file a detailed report. 


Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

This decision unequivocally stressed on the importance of free press, freedom of speech and expression and the impact that impunity for crimes against journalists has “on the society and the fundamental rights of the general public” [para. 4].  The Court held that it is the State’s duty to dispel any public perception that the State sanctions or is involved in crimes against journalists, as a backlash for their reporting. The Court recognized that any such perception, has a major chilling effect on free speech, encourages extremism, and contributes to a regressive society. This case sets a strong precedent in support of a press that can freely carry out its duties, without any unreasonable state interference. 

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

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