Governor likely to send Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 back to assembly

Raza Rabbani calls out discriminatory bill for violating fundamental rights enshrined in Constitution

Asim Yasin
Faizan Bangash
Nadeem Shah
Governor likely to send Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 back to assembly
Punjab Governor Sardar Saleem Haider Khan addresses an event. — Facebook/Sardar Saleem Haider Khan/File
  • Ali Haider Gilani says PPP rejects bill for it curbs media freedom.
  • He complains of PPP not being consulted on said legislation.
  • Rabbani laments "discriminatory" bill as violation of Constitution.

LAHORE: Following the reaction of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) regarding the recently passed Punjab Defamation Bill 2024, Governor Sardar Saleem Haider Khan is "likely" to defer the legislation back to the provincial legislature, The News reported on Thursday.

The PPP, which supported the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in forming its government in the Centre and in Punjab, has reacted strongly to the anti-defamation law that has irked several sections of the society with media organisations being the most prominent ones.

The Punjab Assembly, on Monday, passed the said bill amid a strong and noisy protest by the opposition after it was tabled by Punjab’s Finance and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mujtaba Mian Shuja-ur-Rehman despite media bodies' requests to defer the legislation.

PPP Punjab Parliamentary leader Syed Ali Haider Gilani has complained about the party's legislators not being consulted on the issue and said that the party has rejected the bill as an act which curbs media freedom.

Reiterating that the Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari-led party will never be a part of media sanctions Gilani reassured that the PPP stands firm in support of the freedom of the media.

Meanwhile, former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani, while condemning the passing of the bill, has called for the legislation to be reconsidered as it creates two classes of citizens and provisions for different treatment for ordinary citizens from those who hold public offices.

Rabbani argued that this provision, which discriminates between normal citizens and the ruling elite, violates fundamental rights under the Constitution.

"The Defamation Act, 2024, which was hastily passed through the Punjab Assembly earlier this week, duplicates existing laws and contains vague definitions of terms such as 'journalist' and 'newspaper'. The act imposes preliminary fines without trial and excludes the application of the law of evidence," the former Senate chairman said.

Stressing that it would've been more suitable to amend the existing two legal instruments, namely the Defamation Ordinance, 2002, and the Punjab Defamation Act, of 2012, the veteran politician lambasted the provincial government for not waiting for the 15-member Select Committee, which was reviewing the law, to submit its report, nor did it consider the viewpoints of journalists and civil society.

On the bill's clause pertaining to constitutional offices, the PPP leader said that it defines offices of the security forces as apart from constitutional posts, which he believes is incorrect.

Furthermore, he expressed concern about the act’s exclusion from the umbrella of the Qanun-e-Shahadat Ordinance, 1984, and questioned the evidentiary standards that will be applied to defamation cases heard under the law. He also criticised the act’s provision for the appointment of the Punjab Defamation Tribunal, saying that it gives the provincial government undue power and violates the principles of judicial independence.

Additionally, sources say that a senior PPP leader from Punjab has communicated the party members' reservations to Chairman Bilawal.

PPP's Punjab Secretary-General Syed Hassan Murtaza said that while the PPP opposed the character assassination of anyone in the media, it was unfair to pass the bill without taking stakeholders into confidence. 

Following the opposition from the PPP, the role of the Governor’s House has become significant.

The governor can refer the bill back to the assembly for reconsideration, and if the assembly sends it back to the Governor’s House again, it will assume the shape of the law within a stipulated period. The Punjab governor could not be contacted.

Media bodies to move LHC against bill

The Punjab government's Defamation Bill 2024 has not only drawn the PPP's ire as the media organisations too have reacted strongly to the legislation with the Punjab Joint Action Committee (JAC) announcing to move the Lahore High Court (LHC) on the said issue.

In a statement issued on Monday, the JAC said 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 stakeholders.

The meeting was attended by the members of the 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.

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. 

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also expressed grave concern over the defamation bill.

"The content and language of the bill is troubling on several counts. First, it proposes a parallel structure to adjudicate claims of defamation. HRCP has consistently decried special parallel judicial structures on the grounds that they invariably violate fundamental rights and other universally accepted norms governing the fair functioning of the judiciary," the HRCP said in a statement.

It is to be noted that Pakistan stands at 152nd position, down from 150th in 2023, at the latest annual World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders.