The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) said in a statement issued on Monday that the organisation is witnessing an alarming rise in the registration of defamation cases against individuals speaking about or reporting on incidents of harassment, assault and rape.
This is resulting in a frightening effect whereby victims, survivors and all those engaging in public discourse on the issue of sexual harassment and violence are being silenced, claimed the WAF.
“We have observed an increasing number of cases in which notices under the Defamation Ordinance 2000, private complaints in criminal courts and complaints to the FIA under Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act [PECA] 2016 are being used to instantly silence those speaking about their experiences, anyone expressing support, commenting on a public issue and reporting on this in a professional capacity.”
The statement read that the purpose of introducing the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace 2010 was not only to extend remedies through law but to also enable women to step forward and break the culture of silence and stigma attached to this issue.
The WAF said that if any public debate on cases registered under this law or experience-sharing and views on the issue is going to be stifled by initiating criminal investigations against individuals, the very purpose of such legal instruments is negated, as it also prevents the aggrieved parties from even considering the legal recourse available to them. The organisation said that instant action has been taken by the FIA and courts as a result of these complaints, in stark contrast to the apathetic response to complaints made by women facing harassment.
In some cases, said the WAF, bailable arrest warrants have been issued by sessions courts, and in others, summons upon summons by the FIA, launching investigations into these complaints of alleged defamation.
On the other hand, the complaints and cases of vulnerable complainants in cases of harassment, particularly sexual harassment, are pending before courts and the FIA, and these are not given the same priority, lamented the organisation.
The WAF said that scores of women have revealed that their complaints are not being entertained by the FIA despite repeated attempts. Several complaints are pending against the FIA and its officers before the National Commission for Human Rights for non-registration of complaints or negligence in cases where the complainant is a woman; yet, strangely enough, in recent complaints of defamation, the FIA has been quick to act, added the organisation.
The WAF asked why some complaints get precedence over others. “Does this not suggest that those with more influence and clout have more access and are easily able to use laws to claim relief, while the aggrieved individuals continue to run from pillar to post to have their complaints taken up or cases resolved? Due process and access to justice must be a right that is equally available to all as well as protection from coercive action in the garb of legal action.”
The organisation claimed that criminal defamation is being weaponised and used as a silencing tool; this is counter-productive and unfair. “Most often, the party bringing the case has ready access to a lawyer and is granted instant relief in the form of warrants and investigations, whereas those who find themselves being counter-accused then have to defend themselves — something not within everyone’s means and where evidence is not always in tangible form.”
The WAF also observed the alleged unfairness of how one party is gagged by courts while the other is free to propagate their side of the story whether in the mainstream media or on social media.
“The WAF is deeply concerned and seeks remedies, including legislation, decriminalisation of defamation as well as repeal of Section 20 of PECA and sections 499 and 500 of the PPC, which are being used to initiate criminal investigations and trials to threaten people with arrests and jail terms for speaking about harassment or sexual violence.”
The organisation also demanded an amendment to the defamation ordinance to ensure that it is not used as a threat against individuals exposing cases of harassment or sexual violence. It said the authorities should ensure that all the complaints are handled fairly and without giving any preference, prejudice or precedence to complaints filed by more resourceful individuals. It also stressed public accountability and transparency around the processing of complaints and the progress of cases, as well as restraining the FIA from acting unlawfully.