Orwellian law

Punjab government managed to pass -- bulldoze -- the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024

By Editorial Board
May 23, 2024
The picture shows people holding placards during a protest for media freedom. — AFP/File

Well, if nothing else, the Punjab government seems to have taken '1984' to heart -- dissent being shunned, and laws being tightened over speech. In the latest, the Punjab government managed to pass -- bulldoze -- the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024. This is despite journalists, media bodies, legal experts, civil society and digital rights activists all terming it a draconian law that is aimed at silencing journalists and critical independent voices. The way the law has criminalized defamation under the garb of a civil defamation law makes it all the more dangerous. The law also manages to differentiate between ordinary citizens and what it calls 'constitutional officeholders', with some experts pointing out that it seems as if the whole point of the law is to protect public officials instead of protecting citizens from fake news and propaganda. The law says that a special tribunal will try those involved in drafting, publishing and/or airing fake news, which experts say is against the constitutional guarantee of the independence of the judiciary. The tribunal will be established by the government and a member shall be appointed by the government in consultation with the chief justice of the Lahore High Court (LHC) who will nominate three names from the judiciary and the government will then appoint one of those three. As for the members of the legal fraternity in the tribunal, the government will nominate three names and the CJ LHC will approve one name. Now this seems like a quid pro quo between the government and the LHC chief justice.


Perhaps the more obvious -- glaring, really -- aspect of the law is how conveniently it has also included social media within its ambit. This may be the real point of the law -- the government time and again having talked about how it sees social media as a space that needs to be regulated. One supposes this is what it means by regulation. Some legal experts have deemed this as being worse than General Pervez Musharraf’s defamation law. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says that the bill proposes a parallel structure to adjudicate claims of defamation, and such systems invariably violate fundamental rights and other universally accepted norms governing the fair functioning of the judiciary. There is also the matter of how the provincial government just went ahead with passing the law -- despite knowing very well that journalists and media bodies found a large part of the law problematic. The haste with which the government passed the law justifiably raises suspicions that this law, just like the PML-N’s previous draconian law PECA, is aimed at silencing and censoring freedom of expression.

Journalists in Pakistan have an already tough job when it comes to reporting and/or giving their analysis. Yes, fake news and propaganda must be tackled but there is a difference between those who do this as an agenda and voices that are critical of the government. There is a reason why this bill is being called a black law. It only empowers those in constitutional positions while there is a danger that media channels or even private social media accounts can be shut down by the government without giving the other party any chance to prove their innocence. The government should think about why almost all credible media and civil society organizations are against this bill. This is especially disturbing because this is not the first time the PML-N has pulled something like this -- remember Peca? It is unfortunate that real concerns regarding individual reputations are being used to bulldoze through legislation that is against fundamental rights. Punjab's new chief minister may want to rethink this one. One is reminded of 1984 again: "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”