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Friday June 14, 2024

Media associations to move court against 'controversial' Punjab Defamation Bill

Punjab Joint Action Committee calls new legislation "black law" which violated basic human rights

By Web Desk
May 21, 2024
Representational image. — Reuters/File
Representational image. — Reuters/File

The Punjab Joint Action Committee (JAC) on Tuesday decided to challenge the Defamation Bill 2024 in the Lahore High Court (LHC), terming the legislation as “black law”.

The controversial bill was passed by the Punjab Assembly on Monday amid a strong protest by the opposition. According to the treasury benches, the bill is aimed at stopping fake news, but the media bodies have termed it as “draconian”. 

A statement released by the Punjab JAC also called the Defamation Law 2024 a "black law". 

It said that an emergency virtual meeting organised by the body had decided to further its struggle against the Defamation Bill 2024 by contacting the political parties, human rights organisations and other stakeholders.

The meeting was attended by members of the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND).

The attendees declared the controversial bill “passed in the dark of night without consultation with the stakeholders” as a draconian law, the Punjab JAC stated.

“It was clarified repeatedly that the media bodies are not against the law making but stakeholders should be consulted before legislation,” the committee said.

The statement said that the JAC had identified several authoritarian clauses present in the Defamation Bill 2024 that include points related to tribunals based on ill intention, fines, clauses allowing new laws despite the presence of older laws and clauses against freedom of expression.

It said that the aim of such clauses was to suppress the freedom of expression, putting restraints on journalistic freedom and legislation against basic human rights, which will not be accepted under any circumstances.

“None of the recommendations/suggestions sent by APNS and PBA were considered noteworthy and the black law was passed in haste, which is enough to expose the government’s ill intentions and aims behind this bill,” the Punjab JAC stated.

It further stated that different committees were formed to hold consultations with the stakeholders on connections, legal matters and other affairs.

Civil society, journalists reject Defamation Bill 2024

Over 80 civil society organisations and journalists registered their protest against the Defamation Bill 2024, terming it a "gross infringement" of basic rights.

"We outright reject the Punjab Defamation Bill (2024) as a gross infringement on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and press freedom," the civil society and journalists said in a joint statement issued on Tuesday.

They said that the bill served as a draconian and regressive tool to suppress dissent and criticism, particularly targeting journalists and the wider public.

Its explicit mandate of safeguarding "public officials" against defamation is nothing short of an authoritarian manoeuvre, designed to shield those in power from accountability and scrutiny,' they added.

The statement further said that the bill's provisions, such as allowing defamation actions to be initiated without proof of actual damage and imposing extortionate fines, amount to nothing less than legal intimidation tactics.

"By replacing district courts with tribunals, the bill opens the door for undue interference," it added.

Furthermore, the bill's broad definition of "journalists" and "newspapers" to include social media users sets a dangerous precedent for stifling freedom of expression online.

It said that the punishments, including the possibility of blocking social media accounts, proposed in the bill were disproportionate and antithetical to democratic principles.

The civil society urged the provincial government to heed the voices of the stakeholders and reverse this effort to pass another regressive legislation akin to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca)

They also called for the Punjab Defamation Bill (2024) to be scrapped entirely, and any future attempts to address disinformation and hate speech on online platforms should be initiated with inclusive consultations at the national level.