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Punjab’s New Defamation Law Sparks Pushback, Protests

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Punjab’s New Defamation Law Sparks Pushback, Protests

Critics say the hastily passed bill will have devastating effects on free speech and the media in Pakistan’s most populous province.

Punjab’s New Defamation Law Sparks Pushback, Protests
Credit: Photo 257596383 © Wirestock |

The government of Pakistan’s most populous and wealthiest province has pushed through a defamation law to curb fake news, which the opposition, civil society, and journalists say infringes on freedom of press and expression. The controversial bill has led to protests nationwide and calls to challenge the controversial rules in courts.

The Punjab Defamation Bill 2024, a copy of which was seen by The Diplomat, was passed late Monday amid ruckus in the provincial assembly and a walkout in the press gallery. It is meant to provide legal protection from false, misleading, or defamatory claims made via print, electronic, or social media platforms including X (formerly Twitter), WhatsApp, YouTube, and TikTok against both private citizens and public officials.

“These claims and assertions violate peoples’ privacy and damage the reputation and image of public figures or the government by defaming, slandering, and libeling them. The Bill is necessary to contain such unwarranted criticism and dislike for a person or authority,” the draft of the bill said.

Defamation has been loosely defined as “publication, broadcast, or circulation of a false or untrue statement or representation” that “injures or may have the effect of injuring the reputation of a person or tends to lower him in the estimation of others, or ridicules him, or exposes him to unjust criticism, disliking, contempt or hatred.”

Defendants can face exorbitant fines in damages by special tribunals, and a case has to be decided within 180 days. If an instance of defamation is proved, the tribunal can order an apology, and also call for a block on defendant’s social media account or any other medium or platform through which the content was distributed. An appeal against the judgment can be filed in 30 days, to be heard by a two-judge bench of the provincial high court within 60 days; there will be blanket restrictions on commenting on ongoing cases. Defamation claims related to holders of constitutional office, such as the prime minister, chief justices and military chiefs, will be heard by special one-member tribunals comprising a judge of the Lahore High Court.

Journalists’ bodies rejected the law, terming it an attack against freedom of the press. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) held protests outside press clubs in cities including Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi Quetta, Hyderabad, and Abbottabad, among others, and hoisted black flags.

“The sole purpose of this bill is to strike fear in anyone who may be contemplating criticizing or expressing their frustrations with those in power,” the PFUJ said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also expressed concern, saying the bill is troubling on several counts. Among other issues, the HRCP criticized the bill’s provision allowing tribunals to issues preliminary decrees of up to 3 million rupees without trial, “immediately on receiving a defamation claim.” The ability to assume guilt and issue huge fines “will be a huge blow to freedom of expression and dissent,” the HRCP said. The human rights body also warned that mandating all claims must be resolved within six months could threaten due process and the right to a fair trial.

The HRCP expressed concern over the speed used to rush the bill through. “Five days is too short a period for any meaningful consultation with civil society and digital and mainstream media stakeholders on what is a complex legal proposal affecting an entire digital ecosystem of opinion makers,” the statement said.

The bill was presented by Punjab Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman on May 13 and passed on May 20.

In a statement on May 16, a Joint Action Committee comprising the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE), PFUJ, and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors said the media bodies are not against strengthening the defamation laws in principle, but argued that the bill appeared “draconian” in its current form. It had emphasized the need for a “detailed and purposeful” consultation between stakeholders, but to no avail.

According to media representatives, only one meeting was held, after which they had expected the government would postpone the passing of the bill. Instead, it was bulldozed through without warning – “passed in the dark of night without consultation,” as the JAC put it.

In its readout on Tuesday after an emergency meeting, the Committee rejected the law, and resolved to challenge the law in court, in consultation with political parties, rights organizations and other stakeholders. The JAC said all options including coverage boycotts, sit-ins, protests and other measures would be adopted step by step to oppose the law.

Kazam Khan, the president of CPNE, called the legislation a “black law,” adding that it is the “achievement” of the party that in 2016 passed the controversial Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), a law criticized for limiting digital rights. He was referring to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which currently rules the country’s largest province and is also in power in the center. Critics also argue that the law could create jurisdictional issues as it is only meant for Punjab, whose chief minister, Maryam Nawaz, opposed media regulation in the past.

Punjab’s Information Minister Azma Zahid Bokhari in a press briefing last week said there is a broad consensus over the need for a new and effective defamation law since under the one put in practice over two decades ago, “no case could go beyond the issuance of a notice.” She cited a suit filed by Shehbaz Sharif, the current prime minister, against incarcerated former premier Imran Khan, who in 2017 alleged he was offered a 10 billion rupee bribe to drop pursuing the Panama Papers corruption case against Nawaz Sharif. “Until today, neither that person [Imran Khan] nor any of his lawyers have bothered to respond,” Bokhari said.

She said the government had no political motives in passing the bill, but claimed it would save people from facing reputational damage on the basis of false allegations. Bokhari argued that many of the news stories that got published in Pakistan could not be published in other countries, which have strong defamation laws.

Insisting it would not compromise freedom of expression, Bokhari said the law is not against professional journalists, but those who lie and have a “specific agenda will face the music.”

“Disgracing others and making money out of it would not be tolerated,” she said.

In particular, Bokhari pointed to the problem of “fake news” on social media sites. “No one is afraid of social media, but there is a concern over disrespect, defamation and allegations on social media,” the minister said.

Layoffs due to dwindling advertising revenues and censorship led many journalists to try their luck on social media platforms such as YouTube. Many have a huge fan following and thus a flow of regular income in foreign currency, without editorial checks.

Bokhari also defended the law on multiple television channels on Tuesday, claiming two amendments were made in the original draft after consultations. Asked why the legislation was passed in such haste, Bokhari implied a need for immediate action, saying that for “years” people have been disrespected and accusations have been made without evidence. She downplayed the law by saying defamation charges would be “simple civil suit,” which does not involve police, detention or chance of highhandedness.

The profession of journalism in Pakistan involves security risks, intimidation, online abuse, as well as financial woes. In Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom ranking released this month, Pakistan fell to 152 of 180 countries, down from 150 last year. Arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances have increased, while X, formerly Twitter, has been banned in the country for three months due to “national security concerns.” The government is also deliberating on establishing a digital media authority to regulate online content.

Analyst Aamir Ilyas Rana said there may never be a consensus between journalists’ unions and the government, but there should be a system in place that holds YouTubers accountable for fake news, citing the flow of disinformation during recent riots involving international students in Kyrgyzstan. He said protests will continue and stakeholders have legal avenues to challenge the law. That was the case with PECA amendments passed through a 2022 presidential decree by Imran Khan’s government, which were later quashed by the Islamabad High Court.