FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 28

Defamation bill: an attempt to curb press freedom

The Defamation Bill, 2024, passed by the Punjab Assembly, has drawn a barrage of criticism from all quarters, including journalist bodies, human rights organisations, lawyer forums as well as political parties. The new law has been widely described as “draconian” and a “curb on free media”.

The bill has been passed with the stated aim to provide “protection from false, misleading and defamatory claims via print, electronic and social media against public officials and private citizens”. However, independent observers are of the view that the law’s real purpose is to muzzle free speech and suppress dissenting voices.

This is not the first time in Pakistan that the ruling party has used the pretext of curbing fake news or online content to give new fangs to defamation laws to intimidate and silence critics. It may be added here that the new Punjab defamation bill is not much different from the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act introduced by the PML-N in 2016. Peca too had the stated aim of curbing harassment and hate speech, but in actual fact it was used to curb dissent and free speech. The PML-N government, during its previous tenure at the centre, used Peca to harass the PTI and its workers. The law was also used against journalists critical of the Establishment. Later, when the PTI came to power in 2018, it targeted workers and supporters of the PML-N under Peca and the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly running propaganda campaigns against state institutions. The roles were reversed when the PDM government was formed in 2022, and politicians, and workers associated with the PTI were persecuted under Peca.

The media stakeholders have underlined numerous flaws in the newly-passed law and urged the government to reconsider it, but their demand has been ignored. The Journalists Joint Action Committee (JAC) and a coalition of around 70 media practitioners, civil society organisations and digital rights activists unanimously rejected the Defamation Bill 2024, terming it a ‘black law’ and a gross violation of the fundamental right of freedom of expression. At the same time, a statement issued jointly by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors, said that the JAC would challenge the law before the Lahore High Court. The committee will also contact political parties, human rights organisations and other stakeholders and, if needed, boycott press coverage, stage protests and sit-ins in support of its demands. It further said that the suggestions shared with the government were ignored and the bill was passed by the Punjab Assembly in haste, reflecting the government’s true intentions behind the bill.

According to another statement, signed by Bolo Bhi, Digital Rights Foundation, Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development, Media Matters for Democracy, Katalyst Labs, Lok Sujag, Women’s Action Forum, Pakistan Press Foundation, Freedom Network, Progressive Students Collective, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, Voice.pk, and Centre for Social Justice etc, the bill is nothing but a sly attempt to shield those in power from accountability and scrutiny. The bill’s provisions, such as allowing defamation actions to be initiated without proof of actual damage and imposing heavy fines, amount to nothing less than legal intimidation tactics.

Experts say the Punjab Defamation Act 2024, which seeks to ‘protect public office holders’ from fake news and malicious accusations, is full of legal anomalies and contradictions. Vague definitions of terms such as ‘journalist’ and ‘newspaper’, the imposition of preliminary fines without a trial, and the exclusion of the umbrella of the law of evidence are just some of the glaring defects of the new law. Critics of the bill have also pointed out that in the presence of two legal instruments, i.e. the Defamation Ordinance of 2002 and the Punjab Defamation Act of 2012, there was no need for a new piece of dubious legislation.

Free speech is not and cannot be absolute. Freedom of expression has its limits imposed by law and the moral code of a society. Articles 4(2)(a) and 14(1) of the Constitution of Pakistan protect the reputation and dignity of individuals, while Article 19 guarantees freedom of speech “subject to any reasonable restrictions”. But politicians who abuse their power and want to deflect public criticism hide behind civil defamation laws which are arbitrarily interpreted and applied in utter disregard of basic human rights and principles of free speech.

The fact that the Punjab government showed indecent haste in passing the law without due consulting the stakeholders such as representatives of journalists and civil society showed its mala fide intentions. That is, the idea was not to improve the existing laws but to acquire new sinews to silence critics of the abuse of power by minions of the incumbent government.

Intolerance of criticism is the sign of a weak government. The PML-N government can win the battle of political narratives not by suppressing free speech but by improving the quality of its governance. Confrontation with the media is neither in its own interest nor that of the nation. It is not yet too late for it to withdraw the new law or amend it in consultation with journalist unions.