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Government Threatens Media with Legal Action over ‘Baseless Allegations’

by Newsweek Pakistan

File photo of Chaudhry Fawad Hussain. Photo courtesy PID

Information minister announces decisions to lodge ‘criminal defamation’ case against former judge over statements about Imran Khan

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government on Thursday threatened broadcast media with legal action for reporting on a former member of the party’s statement about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s financial expenditures.

“Some media channels made a campaign out of [Justice (retd.) Wajihuddin Ahmed’s allegations],” said Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain in a press conference. “You cannot telecast allegations anywhere in the world, especially when they are about state institutions,” he claimed, describing the prime minister as an “institution.”

He said the government would pursue a case against all channels that had reported on Ahmed’s allegations without verification, adding that freedom of expression did not absolve them of their “responsibility” to report the truth. To a question on how any media outlet could be penalized for reporting a statement—much as it did repeatedly during the PTI’s time in opposition, when Imran Khan would often state unsubstantiated allegations—Fawad maintained that they had to get all versions of a story before broadcasting it.

Earlier this week, an interview of the former judge—who resigned from the PTI in 2016—went viral on social media and was subsequently picked up by mainstream outlets. In the interview with private broadcaster Bol News, Ahmed alleged that the prime minister’s monthly household expenses were borne by party workers, including now-estranged PTI leader Jahangir Tareen. He claimed that Tareen had initially provided Rs. 3 million/month for Khan to run his household, which had then been increased to Rs. 5 million/month. He alleged that the public perception of Imran Khan being an honest man was “completely wrong.”

Tareen, in a posting on Twitter, denied the allegation. He said that he had done “whatever was in my capacity to help PTI in the quest to build a new Pakistan,” but had never given “a penny for the household expenses of Bani Gala”—the area where Khan’s hilltop residence is located in Islamabad.

In his press conference, Fawad said the government had decided to file a “criminal defamation” suit against Ahmed for his allegations. “Our court system has failed to protect people’s dignity and there are a number of criminal defamation cases still pending in the courts,” he said, claiming that people no longer worried about maligning people’s reputations because defamation cases were not taken seriously. He urged the judiciary to enforce Article 9 of the Constitution, which guarantees that “no person shall be deprived of life or liberty save in accordance with law.”

Continuing his broadside at the media, the minister claimed the government felt media freedom was being used as a cover to “weaken the system.” He accused broadcast media of running campaigns against the military and judiciary, adding that they often faced fines abroad but were free to air such commentary locally due to the absence of any relevant law.

He said the government planned to have the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority bill approved from relevant bodies to streamline local media. “If we don’t introduce tough laws then the system will keep on getting weakened due to fake news,” he claimed.

Describing the statement against Khan as “condemnable,” he rejected the impression that the prime minister had availed any funds to run his household, claiming media channels had “misreported” Khan’s monthly income. He claimed that if Khan cared about money, he would have become a “billionaire” after his divorce from Jemima Goldsmith, as British courts sought an equitable distribution of assets after the dissolution of partnership.

Appealing to the chief justice of Pakistan and the chief justices of all high courts to ensure that the respect of institutions was upheld, he suggested the formation of special division benches at district and high court levels to deal specifically with defamation cases.

Not backing down

Speaking with media in Karachi after Fawad’s press conference, Ahmed maintained that his statement was accurate, adding he had no problem with the government filing a defamation suit. To a question, he said that Tareen had no choice but to deny the allegation. “These expenses are out of the books and are not accounted for. Hence it was easy for him to deny it,” he alleged and questioned whether Tareen and Khan were truly on bad terms, as the former had yet to face any legal action in the sugar scam probe.

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