Media bodies to challenge Punjab Defamation Bill in LHC

Punjab Joint Action Committee holds meeting with media associations and rejects controversial law

Web Desk
Pakistani journalists and civil society activists hold placards against the attack on a senior journalist of a local newspaper in Karachi on October 28, 2017. — AFP

  • Punjab treasury benches say bill "aimed at stopping fake news".
  • Punjab JAC terms Defamation Bill 2024 "black law".
  • Civil society, journalists reject Defamation Bill 2024.

The Punjab Joint Action Committee (JAC) on Tuesday rejected the Defamation Bill 2024 as “black law” and announced the decision to move Lahore High Court (LHC) against the legislation passed by the Punjab Assembly.

The provincial legislature on Monday approved the controversial bill amid a strong protest by the opposition. Termed as “draconian” by the media bodies, the bill as per the treasury benches, is aimed at stopping fake news.

Today, the Punjab JAC issued a statement against the legislation, saying that an emergency virtual meeting organised by the body had decided to further its struggle against the Defamation Bill 2024 by contacting the political parties, human rights organisations and other stake holders.

The meeting was attended by the members of Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND).

The attendees declared the controversial bill “passed in the dark of night without consultation with the stakeholders” as a draconian law, the Punjab JAC stated.

“It was clarified repeatedly that the media bodies are not against the law making but stakeholders should be consulted before legislation,” the committee said.

The statement said that the JAC had identified several authoritarian clauses present in the Defamation Bill 2024 that include points related to tribunals based on ill intention, fines, clauses allowing new laws despite presence of older laws and clauses against freedom of expression.

It said that the aim of such clauses was to suppress the freedom of expression, putting restraints on journalistic freedom and legislation against basic human rights, which will not be accepted under any circumstances.

“None of the recommendations/suggestions sent by APNS and PBA were considered noteworthy and the black law was passed in haste, which is enough to expose the government’s ill intentions and aims behind this bill,” the Punjab JAC stated.

It further stated that different committees were formed to hold consultations with the stakeholders on connections, legal matters and other affairs.

Civil society, journalists reject Defamation Bill 2024

Over 80 civil society organisations and journalists registered their protest against the Defamation Bill 2024, terming it a "gross infringement" of basic rights.

"We outright reject the Punjab Defamation Bill (2024) as a gross infringement on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and press freedom," the civil society and journalists said in a joint statement issued on Tuesday. 

They said that the bill served as a draconian and regressive tool to suppress dissent and criticism, particularly targeting journalists and the wider public. 

Its explicit mandate of safeguarding "public officials" against defamation is nothing short of an authoritarian maneuver, designed to shield those in power from accountability and scrutiny,' they added. 

The statement further said that the bill's provisions, such as allowing defamation actions to be initiated without proof of actual damage and imposing extortionate fines, amount to nothing less than legal intimidation tactics. 

"By replacing district courts with tribunals, the bill opens the door for undue interference," it added. 

Furthermore, the bill's broad definition of "journalists" and "newspapers" to include social media users sets a dangerous precedent for stifling freedom of expression online. 

It said that the punishments, including the possibility of blocking social media accounts, proposed in the bill were disproportionate and antithetical to democratic principles.

The civil society urged the provincial government to heed the voices of the stakeholders and reverse this effort to pass another regressive legislation akin to Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca)

They also called for the Punjab Defamation Bill (2024) to be scrapped entirely, and any future attempts to address disinformation and hate speech on online platforms should be initiated with inclusive consultations at the national level.