A day ahead of the Supreme Court resuming hearing of review petitions against the 2017 Faizabad sit-in on Wednesday, former PEMRA Chairman Absar Alam submitted a sworn statement accusing a former head and officers of an intelligence agency of “manipulating” media coverage of the demonstrations.
In his sworn statement, Alam alleged that then-Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Maj. Gen. Faiz Hamid and his subordinates had called him and sought action against senior journalist Najam Sethi, as well as a media blackout of former ambassador Husain Haqqani.
Submitted in response to apex court directions seeking affidavits with new information pertaining to the 2017 Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) sit-in, the former PEMRA chief alleged that Gen. Faiz and his subordinates had “controlled” policies of TV channels through unlawful means by directing cable operators to shift their numbers if they did not follow instructions. This, he wrote, was intended to affect the public’s visibility of, and access to, the channels.
Recalling that the pressure had become untenable by April 2017, he said he had brought it to the attention of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, then-chief justice Saqib Nisar and then-Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa. Subsequently, he said, in May and June 2017 PEMRA had invoked Section 33A of the PRMA Act to restore all TV channels to their original positions. However, he continued, after the suspension of Channel 92 on Nov. 25, 2017 due to its coverage of the Faizabad dharna, the ex-spymaster and/or his subordinates had called him thrice, questioning the suspension, and demanding that it be reversed or all channels shut down. None of these illegal demands were implemented, he claimed.
According to Alam, then-information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb had then contacted him and asked him to block all news channels. He wrote he had responded that this was both unnecessary and exceedd the authority of PEMRA. To this, he said, she had referred to Section 5 of the PEMRA Act and demanded a shutdown of all channels. He said he had responded by saying this could only be achieved through “a written policy directive” from the federal government.
Subsequently, he wrote, PEMRA had received a written policy directive from the federal government and all news channels were blocked. A day later, he said, the federal government had sent a new directive restoring all the channels.
The former PEMRA chief alleged a “discernible pattern of interference” in the affairs of the regulatory body by officers of the ISI. Some of the illegal and unlawful moves were countered through constant vigilance, he maintained, while acknowledging this had limited impact.
In his statement, Alam alleged that ISI officials had then brought forward challenges to his appointment as PEMRA chairman, with courts taking up the matter in daily hearings before removing him in December 2018. An intra-court appeal, he regretted, was taken up after five years and subsequently dismissed on technical grounds without any opportunity of hearing. He also alleged that an attempt on his life in April 2021 was linked to this, adding serving officers had barred TV channels from interviewing him and blocked his efforts at securing employment after removal from PEMRA.
Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, a three-judge bench took up a set of nine review petitions against the Feb. 6, 2019 judgment in the Faizabad dharna case, and asked Alam to confirm if he was alleging interference by the ISI during his time as PEMRA chief. To his assent, Justice Athar Minallah said he was making some “serious” allegations, adding he should have made these public while he was in office. He also observed that Alam’s successor had claimed he was under “no pressure,” despite being appointed while Gen. Faiz was still ISI chief. “If tomorrow the government forms a commission, will you record your statement?” Justice Isa asked Alam, to which he responded in the affirmative. The CJP remarked that the fact-finding committee should call all those accused by Alam and give them a chance for cross-examination.
While addressing incumbent PEMRA Chairman Saleem Baig, the court directed him to identify a single paragraph of the original judgment that had been implemented by his organization. Rioting and arson, remarked the CJP, were not freedom of expression. “Are two TV channels still prohibited in the cantonment area?” he asked. He also questioned the PEMRA chairman on whose orders he had filed a review petition against the original ruling, with Baig claiming PEMRA had decided to do so of its own accord.
“Be brave and tell us who told you to file a review petition,” Justice Isa asserted, adding that without a written notification verifying the decision, the review petition was meaningless. “You are just wasting our time,” he told Baig, adding that none of the previous three governments was pleased during the latter’s tenure as PEMRA chief.
During proceedings, the apex court reviewed and rejected the government’s fact-finding committee on implementing the Faizabad dharna verdict, directing the Attorney-General for Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Usman Awan to form a new inquiry commission. The CJP observed that the committee appeared to be “illegal,” as it was not formed under the Inquiry Commission Act. “No one will appear before the committee,” he remarked. “We want to know who was the mastermind of the Faizabad sit-in,” he said, expressing annoyance over the decision not being implemented since its issuance on Feb. 6, 2019.
“No one cares about this country,” he remarked, as Justice Minallah said the county was only for the elites, who had occupied it for the last 70 years. The CJP observed that the court was willing to close the case if the government had no intention of implementing its verdict. “We will just wait for another tragedy like Faizabad to take place. Are we threatened by external enemies or internal threats?” he questioned, while observing that “anyone” could just block roads in the country and then flee abroad, in a seeming reference to Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Tahirul Qadri’s participation in the 2014 dharna of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) against the PMLN government.
“Was the purpose of importing a person to overthrow the government of that time?” he asked, questioning if their services would be sought again in future. “Did this person from Canada pay for his own ticket?” he questioned, asking if this could be determined by the investigation committee.
The court also reviewed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)’s report declaring the TLP free of any involvement in anti-state activities and receiving foreign funding. Rejecting the report, the CJP observed that the ECP might consider Rs. 1.5 million in prohibited funding akin to nothing, but he did not. “This is not a minimal amount,” he remarked.
The ECP lawyer subsequently asked for time to review the matter, while disclosing that only one of the TLP donors from abroad had revealed their identity. “Has the Election Act been implemented? TLP has not revealed the source of 33 percent of its income,” the CJP noted, adding that the commission tried to mislead the court. “Is the ECP sincere with the country?”
Lamenting that the country’s institutions were “destroyed in a systematic way,” the CJP said the ECP lawyer appeared to be representing the TLP. “Now elections are coming and an entire environment has been formed that everyone is on the same page,” the chief justice said and granted the ECP one month to prepare and submit a report on the TLP and its funding.
In a subsequent written order, the court dismissed review pleas filed by the Intelligence Bureau, PTI, the defense ministry, MQM and Ijazul Haq on grounds of withdrawal. It also issued notices to Sheikh Rashid over failure to appear in court and adjourned the hearing until Nov. 15.
The original ruling, authored by Justice Isa prior to taking oath as CJP, had instructed the defense ministry and the tri-services chiefs to penalize personnel found to have violated their oath. It had also directed the federal government to monitor those advocating hate, extremism and terrorism and prosecute them in accordance with law.