Defamation vs free speech

May 26, 2024

Journalists and rights workers have many reservations against the new defamation bill passed by the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab

Defamation vs  free speech



he Provincial Assembly passed the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, last week, amidst protests by working journalists. The bill provides a framework for managing claims, defences and processes related to defamation in the Punjab. Many aspects of it have been criticised by civil rights organisations including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and Women in Law.

Section 3 of the bill defines defamation as a civil wrong, actionable without the need for proof of actual damage. Three major defences are outlined in Section 4: truth, privilege and consent. The bill provides for the establishment of a Punjab Defamation Tribunal to hear defamation cases, outlining the process of appointment and powers of tribunal members.

Section 21 lists the consequences of defamation once established. These include mandatory apologies and possible suspension of social media account(s).

Defamation vs  free speech

The bill repeals the existing Defamation Ordinance 2002 which had been criticised for being vague and inefficient. The new law is more specific and definitive. The inefficiency criticism may have been addressed with the establishment of a tribunal.

By broadening the definitions and potentially raising the penalties for defamation, the bill has raised apprehensions of potential suppression of free speech. The inclusion of all forms of digital and social media can make some people more hesitant to express their views, fearing legal repercussions. Severe penalties and the ease of alleging defamation without needing to prove actual harm will deter some people from engaging in frank criticism.

The bill overlaps with and extends the existing defamation laws, introducing stricter controls and potentially harsher penalties. This has created a more hostile legal environment for free speech, as the threshold for what constitutes harm is lowered and the penalties for defamation are raised.

The bill repeals the existing Defamation Ordinance 2002 which was considered vague and inefficient. The new law is more specific and definitive.

The introduction of such a law, amidst attempts at suppression of dissent, can be seen as an attempt to strengthen control over the narrative surrounding government actions and public figures. There is a perceived need to regulate conversations in digital spaces that are currently less regulated than the traditional media.

The significance of the bill’s impact cannot be overstated. It has the dangerous potential to throttle a range of areas including legal recourse, procedural handling and freedom of expression. For starters, the bill allows defamation claims to proceed without the need for the claimant to prove actual damage or loss. This lowers the threshold for initiating legal action against alleged defamatory statements and could lead to an increase in defamation cases. Once defamation is established under this law, general damages are presumed to have been suffered by the defamed party. This shifts a significant amount of burden onto the defendant, who must not only disprove the defamatory nature of their statement but also counter the presumption of harm.The bill specifies substantial minimum damages and the possibility of punitive damages that can be up to 10 times the amount of general damages for demonstrated malice or bad faith. This raises the financial stakes for defendants, potentially deterring individuals and entities from making statements that could be construed as defamatory.

The provision for the creation of specialized Defamation Tribunals to handle defamation cases could streamline the process and potentially lead to quicker resolutions. However, it also centralises the power to adjudicate these matters. This could lead to consistency issues or bias depending on the tribunal’s composition and operation. The tribunal is instructed to adopt summary procedures, which generally expedite the legal process but may limit the depth of examination and the capacity for a detailed defence, potentially impacting the fairness of trials. The bill limits the ability to appeal interlocutory orders and places strict limits on public discussion of ongoing defamation proceedings. This not only affects transparency but also restricts the legal recourse available to defendants, particularly in challenging preliminary rulings.

The bill can cause a chilling effect on speech by broadening the definition of defamation and including all forms of media communication, which could discourage free speech, especially criticism of public figures and authorities. The fear of legal repercussions might deter some people and a section of the media from engaging in an open and critical discourse.

The specific inclusion of electronic and social media platforms under the law indicates a move to regulate and control digital expression more tightly. Given the expansive use of social media for public debate and information dissemination, this could significantly curtail the space for free expression online.The bill’s provisions appear particularly protective of public officials and figures, potentially at the expense of public accountability and the democratic need for scrutiny of those in power. While the notion of defamation under this law wraps itself around the need for protection of reputations, one cannot help but think whether the protection will extend to only a few.

The Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, may have streamlined the handling of defamation cases and introduced clear legal pathways for addressing defamation, its broader implications could severely impact legal defences, procedural fairness and the fundamental right to free speech in the Punjab. The legal system is already being used to suppress dissent rather than protect reputations.

The writer is an advocate of the high court, a founding partner at LexMercatoria and a visiting teacher at Bahria University’s Law Department. She can be reached at

Defamation vs free speech