Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024

Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024

Mohsin Saleem Ullah June 07, 2024
The writer holds an LLM from UC Berkeley and is a practising lawyer and columnist. He can be reached at mohsin.saleemullah@berkeley.edu or Twitter: @MohsinSaleemu


The Punjab Assembly recently passed a Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024 in unusual haste, despite significant concerns from the journalist fraternity, human rights organisations and opposition legislators. The bill that awaits the governor’s assent to become law proposes special tribunals to handle cases of ‘fake news’ and deliberate ‘misinformation’ with penalties ranging from a Rs3 million fine to ten times that amount in punitive damages. The bill has several significant issues — duplication of existing laws, vague definitions of terms such as ‘journalist’ and ‘newspaper’, imposition of preliminary fines without a trial and exclusion of the law of evidence or Qanoon-i-Shahadat — that raise concerns about the standards that will be applied to defamation cases under the new law. The new bill allows a private person to invoke the law without presenting any witnesses. Section 23, which states that ‘Qanoon-i-Shahadat shall not apply’, needs to be removed as it violates Article 8(2) of the Constitution and is a clear negation of the right to a fair trial, as guaranteed under Article 10-A thereof.

In the presence of the existing legal instruments like the Defamation Ordinance of 2002 and the Punjab Defamation Act of 2012, it would have been more prudent to amend these laws rather than introduce entirely new legislation. Besides, there are multiple reasons why this development is troubling. It allows the state to restrict speech under the guise of combating fake news, opens avenues for targeting political opposition and empowers unaccountable single-member tribunals to determine what constitutes defamation, resulting in bypassing the existing legal system.

Before delving deeper, it’s worth questioning whether such a defamation law effectively addresses the problem it targets. The widespread use of social media has indeed led to an abundance of information, much of it lacking factual accuracy. This information spreads quickly, with significant impacts. While this suggests a need for some legal remedy, defamation laws usually provide that the government monopolises the remedy’s nature without being equipped to understand the problem’s scale and nature. This issue requires careful consideration by a broader range of stakeholders, including media watchdogs, journalist associations and human rights organisations especially those focused on digital rights. In the hands of state authorities, such a punitive legal tool suggests coercive intent.

Another reason for caution is the bill’s timing and political context. Over the past two years, rights violations have escalated, culminating in the suppression of the opposition through various legal and extra-legal means. The PTI’s use of social media has been cited as a key factor in its popularity, enabling it to lead an unprecedented election campaign and become the largest party in the country. The defamation bill aims to regulate social media, potentially targeting an already suppressed political entity and limiting its role as an effective opposition.

The procedural critique of establishing a parallel judicial structure, highlighted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, is also important. The 180-day time-limit for proceedings, while well-intentioned, may undermine the legal process’s quality and lead to hasty punishments, bypassing existing witness laws. Additionally, the bill allows the government to appoint tribunal members from a pool recommended by the high court’s chief justice and offer them higher emoluments than the judiciary currently provides. This encroaches on judicial authority, leaving room for misuse and subversion for political purposes.

Overall, the bill has faced strong opposition from the media as well as civil society, and PTI members in the legislature. This should prompt the government to reconsider the legislation’s details. The public’s skepticism towards punitive measures to address fake news reflects a mistrust between civil society and the state, and an erosion of democratic norms that allow political opposition to function. It also underscores that public authority in Pakistan increasingly relies on coercion rather than legitimate consent.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2024.

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