Joint action committee rejects Punjab defamation bill

Joint action committee rejects Punjab defamation bill

Khayam Abbasi

ISLAMABAD: More than 80 civil society organisations registered their protest on Tuesday against the Punjab Defamation Bill (2024) passed by the provincial assembly a day earlier.

The provincial assembly yesterday passed the Defamation Bill, 2024, rejecting all amendments proposed by the opposition amid protests by the PTI-backed Sunni Ittehad Council and journalists covering parliamentary proceedings.

The SIC members tore apart copies of the bill after the House passed it through a voice vote.

Vetted by the Special Committee-1 in the absence of standing committees, the bill was tabled by Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman after the PML-N government refused to delay voting on the bill, even for a week, at the request of journalists.

On the occasion, the press gallery members walked out of the assembly to boycott the proceedings. They rejected the bill as a “curb on free media”.

A press release issued by civil society and journalists Joint action committee said they outrightly reject the Punjab Defamation Bill, given that it was a gross infringement on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and press freedom.

It said that the bill served as a “draconian and regressive” tool to suppress dissent and criticism and particularly targeted journalists and the wider public.

“Its explicit mandate of safeguarding ‘public officials’ against defamation is nothing short of an authoritarian manoeuvre, designed to shield those in power from accountability and scrutiny,” it said.

It said that the bill’s provisions, which allow defamation actions to be initiated without proof of actual damage and imposing extortionate fines, amounted to nothing less than legal intimidation tactics.

Furthermore, the bill’s broad definition of “journalists” and “newspapers” to include social media users set a dangerous precedent for stifling freedom of expression online, the statement said.

“The proposed punishments, including the possibility of blocking social media accounts, are disproportionate and antithetical to democratic principles,” it said.

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

It called for the defamation bill to be “scrapped entirely”, demanding the governor of Punjab to not sign the bill.
It said that future attempts to address disinformation and hate speech on online platforms should be initiated with inclusive consultations at the national level.

Opposition leader Shibli Faraz, Barrister Ali Zafar and other PTI leaders walked out of the Senate on account of the defamation bill passed by the Punjab assembly.

“The bill brought forward by the Punjab government regarding media is condemnable,” Faraz said while speaking to the Senate.