Televising court proceedings in Pakistan

ByDr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam

Designation: is an educationist with wide experience


August 6, 2023

Televising court

Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam comments on an increasing yet controversial phenomenon

Televising court – Pakistan is in grip of a judicial wrangle that has come on top of multiple judiciary-related issues that have affected the country one way or the other. Many observers have pointed out to the excess of judicial activism to be partly responsible for the state of uncertainty in the country. Though judicial decisions have consistently affected the course of national action over the years but in the current age of information explosion they have become widespread cause of creating a polarisation in the country already beset with myriad problems. This situation has brought into open the matter of exposing judicial proceedings to the wider public through holding them under the media glare. It is argued that when judiciary has taken to utilise cyber technology for hearing cases then why its proceedings could not be aired live to keep wider public informed about dispensation of justice that would certainly alter their perception about the so-called byzantine nature of holding judicial process.

The main problem in this respect is that in Pakistan legal proceedings hitherto take place in the confines of the buildings of courts and the atmosphere there is described as lofty and rarified. There is hardly any doubt that public interest in this respect is quite high and people pay plenty of attention to this process. In this context, two main perspectives initially spring to mind: the access of mass media, in particular television, to court and legal processes and the representation and depiction of court and legal processes by the mass media, in particular television. The relationship between the two terms can be seen quickly as reflecting a public relationship between two powerful and significant institutions in the public sphere; that of broadcast television and legal practice. These two sectors can be regarded as fundamentally distinct yet also interrelated. This is precisely the kind of connectivity that encourages the proponents of opening up court proceedings to television coverage and they keep on insisting upon it.

It must be borne in mind that in Pakistan, the problematic issue of allowing television cameras and journalists direct access to court proceedings remains largely unresolved in many jurisdictions, yet longstanding restrictions or outright prohibition by news or current affairs programs has not stopped a plethora of court, detection, current affairs, forensic and drama programmes from capitalising on public interest in the same subject matter that is not available in real time broadcasts. This breaking-news mania has heightened the public interest in the matter and it is found difficult to restrict it for a long time to come. The usual telecast of even polite comments of the judicial benches are presented as something sensational whipping up public anxiety. This situation has often resulted in misplaced apprehensions about the judicial process and it could possibly be remedied once appropriate access in provided to media to cover it. It is possible to argue that issues of confidentiality, probity and regulation of crime and legal processes has in part motivated the fictional depictions of the same processes. Such negative motivation – to depict indirectly what cannot be positively permitted or seen – of course only in part explains the reluctance on part of both the proponents.

However, both media and law are two very diverse terms to combine together but during the last few decades it has been observed that their compatibility levels have shown an increase. The resulting coordination can be seen as reflecting a public relationship between two powerful and significant institutions in the public sphere. The broadcast television and legal practice can be regarded as fundamentally distinct yet also interrelated.

It is already recognised that the inter-relation of representational and presentational depictions of legal subject matters has become more fluid, in terms of genres of programme, media technology, changes in access by selected jurisdictions and by the use of media within legal processes and courts for purposes such as administration, interview and evidence. It must be kept in mind that however theatrical aspects of court performance might appear, its fundamental structure can be regarded as being rhetorical, linguistic and logical and different to the dimensions of televised perceptions and practices. The perception can be made tacitly and quickly by both legal and media practitioners and can be elaborated theoretically, in terms of theories of language, signs and medium. In this regard it is pointed out that law is mainly verbal in its expository style while television is mainly non-verbal or visual but this contrast can be evaluated with the court seen to have a sobriety and dignity lacking in the messages of media.

Despite the will to coordinate between both areas of activity there remains fundamental distrust of methods of narration, production presentation, arguments and audience and it certainly is not an easy matter to resolve. It is already noted that investigative and current affairs programmes have already assumed quasi-legal roles of arbitration that can rival and even interrupt those of formal judicial domains. This tendency is quite obvious in Pakistan where the television presenters take pride in becoming the judge and jury creating a strong antipathy within the legal profession. They just ignore that any relationship between law and media can be inter-jurisdictional and it is not proper to intrude into each other’s domain.

It is conceded that pragmatically the possibility of erecting a boundary wall between the activities of mass media and legal practice does exists though it may more of a transient nature keeping in view dynamic interdependent relations between them and their hybrid practices. Though it may look odd in Pakistani context to witness television crews with portable equipment finding access to the courtrooms and then holding out of court street interviews but gradually the pattern would be duly acknowledged as beneficial to the interest of both media and judicial institutions as well as general public. It is actually agreed upon that given selected jurisdictional precedents and participant permissions it is possible to bring about a rational perspective. However, what is required is to guard against those elements of entertainment, glamour and sensationalism that may mar the solemnity of judicial process.

It must be appreciated that even in a restrictive society like Pakistan, the judiciary agreed to employ the teleconference facility and considered it a useful tool in their operational activity. Other sensitive subjects such as evidence captured by law enforcement agencies on video, forensic record and other related material is already a recognised matter. It must however be clear that permission for access is increasingly a matter for the discretion of individual jurisdictions, courts and judges rather than binding, general procedural rules. This may prove tricky in practical dealing though it may not be out of reach once attempted with earnestness. It must also be kept in view that the current media coverage of judicial matters provides a one-way perspective and it would be beneficial to make it bilateral and cogent. The Weekender


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