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Wednesday June 19, 2024

Outcry over ‘draconian’ bill passed by Punjab Assembly

JAC demands Punjab and federal governments to hold extensive discussions with media organisations

By Zebunnisa Burki
May 21, 2024
The picture shows people holding placards during a protest for media freedom. — AFP/File
The picture shows people holding placards during a protest for media freedom. — AFP/File

KARACHI: The Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024 is draconian, an effort to silence independent voices, expands the ambit of defamation, and differentiates between ordinary citizens and constitutional office-holders, say journalists and legal experts who have seen the bill.

The reactions to the law came as the Punjab government on Monday went ahead and tabled the contentious defamation bill despite strong reservations already aired by journalist bodies regarding the legislation.

Secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and president of the Lahore Press Club Arshad Ansari spoke to The News from Lahore on Monday night while the Punjab Assembly was still in session. Emphasising that the session was still going on at 10:30pm, Ansari gave an account of what all had transpired prior to the PA tabling the defamation bill. After a meeting of media stakeholders at the Lahore Press Club, a call for protest was given regarding the bill. This is when the journalist and media bodies were asked to come in for a meeting with Punjab Assembly representatives. Ansari tells The News that they reached at the given time, held a meeting, and discussed the bill clause by clause -- eventually asking the Punjab government to give media stakeholders at least a week to review the bill. "However, the government tabled the bill today and are seemingly wanting to pass it before midnight today", adds Ansari.

The next step, says Ansari, is to protest: "We have decided to bring together all stakeholders for tomorrow (Tuesday), we will protest, we will wear black armbands, we will continue our boycott of the assembly".

Speaking about the defamation bill and why there was even a need for that, Ansari says that there are a number of defamation laws already in the country. In fact, he says, "We already have four laws [that are used to] arm-twist: Pemra, Peca, Pakistan Press Council and the defamation laws. I can say one thing in advance: they will pass this bill and from the next day arrests and processes will start under it. This will also come back to haunt the PML-N.  There are clauses in this bill that are against the constitution Unfortunately, the Punjab government seems to be in a rush to just pass this."

Ansari is not alone in his estimations regarding the defamation bill. A few days back, the Joint Action Committee -- comprising the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND), had issued a joint statement regarding the law as well, calling it a threat to freedom of expression.

President of AEMEND Azhar Abbas tells The News that the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024 in its current form "is an effort to silence independent voices and curtail freedom of speech". Pointing to the "imbalance" created by the provision that allows claims by holders of constitutional offices to be handled by a specially nominated single bench of the Lahore High Court, he says this would "favour powerful individuals over ordinary citizens".

"The haste with which the [Punjab] government almost bulldozed dissent on the bill and presented it in the Punjab Assembly without meaningful consultations with media bodies show its malafide intent”, adds Abbas.

Citing concerns that "while the bill aims to provide a structured approach to handling defamation, its provisions could be misused to suppress free speech, inhibit journalistic freedom, and create legal inequities", the AEMEND president suggests that these aspects should be carefully reviewed and possibly revised "to ensure a balance between protecting reputations and upholding fundamental rights.”

Legally too the law does not seem to pass the test of soundness. Supreme Court advocate Basil Nabi Malik offers his legal opinion and says at least three things stand out in the bill as problematic. First, "it seems to specifically extend itself to a variety of communications, and especially social media platforms. It may be argued by some that the earlier law, although less blatantly, also catered to such electronic platforms. However, notwithstanding this, the specific mention of social media platforms seems to be deliberate."

Malik feels that 'defamation' in the current law has also been "defined in a way whereby not only remarks which cause injury to reputation may possibly be classified as defamation, but even those remarks that 'may' have the effect of injuring the reputation of an aggrieved party, amongst other things, shall now qualify.  By adding such a provision, the legislature clearly intends to expand the ambit of defamation". Third, he adds, "the law seeks to shift the burden of proof from the person suing to the person defending".

"Draconian and unconstitutional" is how Barrister Ali Tahir describes the law. He has his reasons: first is that the members appointed to the tribunal "are chosen with the government's approval, either when the names are submitted to the chief justice by the government or the other way around, which is also in the government’s hands. This implies that every time a journalist criticizes the government, there is a higher likelihood of them being liable to pay damages. This will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on free speech".

Tahir also feels that the bill is "entirely pro-claimant, with the possibility of preliminary decrees -- something unprecedented globally." He warns that "what Pemra couldn't do to television news channels, this bill, if enacted, will accomplish with social media. This is particularly concerning in an era where many journalists have turned to social media and YouTube channels to express themselves freely."

For Barrister Rida Hosain, what jumps out in the tabled bill is how "one of the central aims of the new defamation bill is to protect and safeguard the reputation of constitutional office-holders. ‘Constitutional office’ has been defined to include the president, prime minister, chief justice of Pakistan, judges of the Supreme Court, chief of army staff etc. Firstly, a special single bench of the Lahore High Court will hear defamation claims filed by constitutional officeholders. Secondly, constitutional officeholders will not be required to personally appear during defamation proceedings."

She explains that on the other hand "ordinary citizens will file their claims before ‘tribunals’ established under the law...and may be required to personally appear during the defamation proceedings. There must be equality before the law. This is not equality...The last thing we need is public officials/constitutional officeholders threatening citizens with defamation lawsuits."

Barrister Tahir adds to this concern by pointing out that "shouldn’t constitutional officeholders be more prone to criticism, owing to the public office that they hold and the fact that they are paid from taxpayers' money -- isn’t this the standard globally?"

Meanwhile, it is not just journalists or legal experts that are worried about the problems posed by the defamation law proposed by the Punjab government. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has also expressed reservations regarding the bill. In a statement issued on Monday, the HRCP said that the "content and language of the bill is troubling on several counts". The HRCP has said that the bill will be "a huge blow to freedom of expression and dissent" and that by creating a "special category of holders of constitutional office", the proposed law "violates the principle of equality of citizens and equality before the law."

Similarly, the Women's Action Forum has also condemned the Punjab Defamation Bill, calling it a "severe threat to freedom of expression for journalists and the public nationwide."

On the government's end, a few days back Punjab's Minister for Information Azma Bokhari had said that the bill would only bother those journalists "who fabricate news while sitting in their homes". She had also clarified that any case registered under the law would be a civil one, with no role of the police nor any provision for arrest and incarceration.