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Friday June 21, 2024

Punjab PA passes defamation bill amid opposition, media protest

The opposition termed it a ‘black law’ and staged protest while tearing the copies of the bill

By Faizan Bangash & Our Correspondent & Sher Ali Khalti
May 21, 2024
A general view of the Punjab Assembly floor. — AFP/File
A general view of the Punjab Assembly floor. — AFP/File

LAHORE: The provincial assembly Monday passed the Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 amid strong protest from the opposition members, as the amendments proposed by them were rejected by the treasury.

The opposition termed it a ‘black law’ and staged protest while tearing the copies of the bill. The bill was moved by Provincial Minister Mian Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman. Advocate General Punjab Khalid Ishaq said that no civilised society allowed anyone to level allegations against others in the name freedom of expression.

The Punjab Assembly session, chaired by Deputy Speaker Zaheer Iqbal Channar, witnessed a heated discussion from the government and the opposition over the Defamation Bill 2024. Opposition leader Ahmad Khan Bachar told the house that the Defamation Act was a black law and the opposition would not become part of any such legislation. He recommended referring the bill to the standing committee, office-holders, say journalists and legal experts who have seen the bill.

The reactions to the law came as the Punjab but Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman rejected the proposal and stated that a lengthy discussion had already been held on the bill. An opposition MPA, Ahmar Rasheed Bhatti, while participating in the debate, said the bill was in violation of Article 8 of the Constitution. He said as per the fourth amendment, the word ‘Defamation’ was ejected from the Constitution and it had once again been made part of the law. He stated that Article 202 and 203 also clash with the bill and any legislation in that regard should be done while taking the media and people into confidence. He said, “We were not paid from public money to suppress the voice of public.”

A senior opposition legislator Ejaz Shafi, who hails from Rahim Yar Khan, while expressing his concerns on the bill, said history would show that a black law was imposed by this government. He said the incumbent government aimed at silencing the voice of people through its dictatorial stance, adding that it was also receiving dictation from somewhere for the bill.

Nadim Qureshi, another opposition MPA from Multan, said the history would remember the day as a black day. Hafiz Farhat Abbas, the opposition MPA from Lahore, said already a law existed in that regard but, while passing the bill, a society could not flourish. He said those who were afraid of defamation should first earn good repute.

Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman said the PMLN leadership had been acquitted by the court and now the leader of the opposition was in jail on theft and terrorism charges.

Another opposition MPA from Faisalabad, Junaid Afzal Sahi, stated that the legislation was meant to target the PTI. He said the law could be used against anyone anytime. Also, the Press Gallery Monday boycotted coverage of the Punjab Assembly in protest against the Defamation Bill 2024, passed by the house. The Press Gallery members, led by President Lahore Press Club Arshad Ansari, Secretary Press Gallery Hassan Ahmad, Zaheer Shahzad and others gathered at the stairs of the PA and chanted slogans against the controversial legislation.

The media fraternity members termed the bill a dark chapter in the history of the country and reiterated their commitment to the freedom of press. They stated that no power could deprive the media workers of their right to know and express.

Separately, a PTI spokesperson said on Monday his party would strongly resist any bid to deprive people of their right to expression under the guise of defamation law. He came down hard on the Punjab government for its attempt to what he alleged depriving citizens of their constitutional right of freedom to expression and the press under the guise of new defamation law in the province, vowing that the party would strongly resist any such move at every level.

The PTI, he made it clear, would oppose and resist any attempt of the government to muzzle public voices. He strongly condemned the organised ‘state invasion’ against the basic constitutional rights of citizens and added that the PTI would not accept any unconstitutional legislative or administrative measures in any part of the country and would strongly resist such moves.

He alleged that the political puppets devoid of public support and mandate were providing a shield to unconstitutional state elements to implement their unconstitutional agenda in lieu of their illegal presence in the assemblies.

The PTI spokesperson lamented that Pakistan was being shaped into a state based on lawlessness, as law of jungle was being imposed and all basic constitutional rights were being usurped one by one by those who were hell bent upon imposing their will.

The media in general, social media and journalists in the country, he claimed, were facing the worst state repression and unconstitutional restrictions. He said the bodies working for sanctity of freedom of expression and press should come forward and organise a wider resistance against the criminal act of gagging citizens and the media.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed grave concern over the draft defamation bill, tabled in the Punjab Assembly.

In a statement issued on Monday, the HRCP said the content and language of the bill was troubling on several counts. First, it proposes a parallel structure to adjudicate claims of defamation. The HRCP has consistently decried special parallel judicial structures on the grounds that they invariably violate fundamental rights and other universally accepted norms governing the fair functioning of the judiciary. Second, the bill proposes setting up defamation tribunals while empowering the government to appoint judges on higher allowances and benefits than what are available to the existing provincial judiciary functioning at the district level. Third, all defamation claims have to be resolved within a short span of 180 days. The bill proposes authorising defamation tribunals to issue preliminary decrees to the tune of Rs3 million without trial immediately on receiving a defamation claim. This will be a huge blow to freedom of expression and dissent. Such orders are likely to be passed without following due process and ensuring fair trials. Fourth, the draft law creates a special category of holders of constitutional offices, such as prime minister, chief justices and military chiefs, among others. Defamation claims pertaining to these categories will be heard by special one-member tribunals comprising a judge of the Lahore High Court. This provision violates the principle of equality of citizens and equality before the law.

The HRCP said it was also concerned by the haste in which the bill was being tabled. Five days is too short a period for any meaningful consultation with civil society and digital and mainstream media stakeholders on what is a complex legal proposal affecting an entire digital ecosystem of opinion makers.