Governor likely to send Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 back to assembly

The Governor of Punjab, Sardar Saleem Haider Khan, speaking at an event. — Facebook/Sardar Saleem Haider Khan/File
  • Ali Haider Gilani denounces bill for suppressing press freedom.
  • PPP voices complaint about lack of consultation on the bill.
  • Rabbani criticizes bill for being at odds with constitutional rights.

LAHORE: The dissent expressed by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) against the recently endorsed Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 suggests that the Governor, Sardar Saleem Haider Khan, might subsequently return the bill to the legislative body for review, The News has learned on Thursday.

Having aligned with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to establish provincial and federal governments, PPP has launched a robust opposition to the anti-defamation legislation, stirring discontent among various societal segments, notably media entities.

The Punjab Legislature, amidst vocal protests from the opposition last Monday, passed the contentious bill. This occurred despite pleas from media groups to postpone the legislative process.

Syed Ali Haider Gilani, the PPP Punjab Parliament leader, lamented the lack of inclusion of the party’s lawmakers in deliberations on the bill and articulated the party’s rejection of the bill on the basis that it undermines media liberty.

Consistent with the ethos of the party headed by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Gilani confirmed PPP’s unwavering support for press freedom.

Former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani voiced his disapproval of the bill’s passage, urging a thorough reappraisal given that it differentiates between ordinary individuals and public officers, a distinction he regards as anti-constitutional.

Rabbani pointed out that the bill not only redundantly replicates existing laws but also introduces ambiguous descriptions for roles such as ‘journalist’ and ‘newspaper’, alongside enacting fines before due trial and sidestepping the prevailing evidence laws.

He rebuked the government for bypassing the recommendations of a 15-member Select Committee, which was analyzing the legislation, and ignoring the insights of journalists and civil society. Rabbani took issue particularly with the bill’s constitutional office clause, its departure from the Qanun-e-Shahadat Ordinance of 1984, and the setup of the Punjab Defamation Tribunal, perceiving these aspects as encroachments upon judicial independence.

Insider reports suggest a senior PPP Punjab figure has briefed Chairman Bilawal about the party’s objections.

PPP’s Punjab Secretary-General Syed Hassan Murtaza emphasized the necessity for a balanced approach, opposing undue character defamation in media yet deeming it critical to involve all relevant parties before ratifying such legislation.

Amid the PPP’s disapproval, the Gubernatorial Office has become a focal point, with the ability to call for a second review of the bill by the assembly. Should the assembly uphold the bill, it will nonetheless become official within a prescribed timeframe. Attempts to reach the Punjab governor were to no avail.

Media Agencies Prepare Legal Challenge to Bill

The Defamation Bill 2024 initiated by the Punjab government has faced strong resistance not just from the PPP but from media organizations as well. The Punjab Joint Action Committee (JAC) is preparing to challenge the bill in the Lahore High Court (LHC).

An announcement on Monday revealed that the JAC, following an urgent web-based meeting, aims to amplify its campaign against the Defamation Bill 2024 by engaging political parties, human rights groups, and other critical actors.

This assembly, with representation from 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), unanimously concluded that the bill, approved with haste and without stakeholder input, is authoritarian in nature.

Furthermore, more than 80 civil society groups along with journalists have expressed their objection to the Defamation Bill 2024, branding it as a “grave restriction” on foundational liberties.

“We categorically reject the Punjab Defamation Bill (2024) as a blatant encroachment upon the rights to free speech and press freedom,” announced the joint coalition of civil society and journalists on Tuesday.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also voiced intense unease concerning the bill, critiquing its content and phrasing, and the prospect of it establishing a non-traditional system for adjudicating defamation claims—an approach HRCP has historically criticized based on its tendency to infringe upon fundamental rights and legal norms for judiciaries.

It is noteworthy that in the latest annual World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan has declined to 152nd place from 150th in the year of 2023.

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