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Saturday, June 8, 2024

Controversial Defamation Bill Becomes Law in Punjab

The Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, signed into law amidst strong opposition and criticism, sparks concerns over press freedom and legal challenges.

The Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, signed into law by Acting Punjab Governor Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan, has drawn intense criticism from journalists, digital rights activists, and opposition politicians. Governor Sardar Salim Khan, currently on leave, was absent during the bill’s final approval. The Governor House confirmed that the defamation law will soon be formally enforced across Punjab, applying to every citizen.

Legislation Details and Criticism

Presented by Punjab Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Mujtaba Shuja-ur-Rehman, the bill was passed by the Punjab Assembly on May 20, despite significant protests. The bill classifies defamation as a civil wrong, allowing victims to initiate action without proof of actual damage. Special tribunals will be established to hear cases within six months, with potential fines up to PKR 3,000,000 (approximately USD 10,750) and punitive damages up to ten times that amount. Additionally, offenders may be compelled to apologize and have their social media accounts or media platforms suspended or blocked.

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Journalists and rights groups have labeled the bill as ‘draconian,’ fearing its potential for abuse against government critics. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) condemned the bill, urging authorities to uphold press freedom. Over 80 civil society organizations have rejected the bill as a violation of fundamental rights.

Legal Challenges and Government Response

Following its approval, the law faced immediate legal challenges in the Lahore High Court. Journalist Jaffar Ahmad Yar and citizen Raja Riaz filed petitions against the law, naming Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz, the governor, and the provincial government. The petitions argue that the defamation law contradicts existing legislation and was hastily introduced to control the media without proper consultation.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also expressed grave concerns, highlighting the law’s vague terms, harsh fines, and its potential impact on press freedom. PFUJ President GM Jamali and Secretary General Rana M Azeem criticized the legislation as contrary to Pakistan’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression, announcing plans for nationwide protests.

International and Local Reactions

The bill’s passage has attracted international attention, with the IFJ emphasizing the dangers it poses to press freedom and freedom of information in Pakistan. The IFJ called for the immediate withdrawal of the legislation, advocating for robust consultations with journalists, media workers, and their unions before any further defamation laws are enacted.

Locally, opposition politicians and media stakeholders have been vocal in their opposition. Despite only one meeting between provincial leadership and media stakeholders, the bill was passed without incorporating feedback from these groups. This lack of consultation has fueled further backlash and legal actions.