Protecting or silencing?

Editorial Board
Saturday, May 18, 2024

One would expect those that have endured persecution would try and undo the work of those who lacked the democratic legitimacy they have. However, the Punjab government now appears to be building on a legacy they ought to be doing away with. Having decided that the 2002 Defamation Ordinance is not enough, the Punjab government has proposed a new anti-defamation law: the Punjab Defamation Bill 2024. The Punjab information minister has claimed the law will only go after those spreading lies under the guise of journalism but her assurances have failed to assuage the worries of most major media bodies including the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and Assoc­ia­tion of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND). The latter are adamant that the bill threatens freedom of expression but are not against a law regulating digital content or addressing defamation per se, remaining open to engaging with the government to ensure any such laws are in line with democratic principles. However, with journalists only being given until Sunday (May 19) to submit their concerns and the law likely to be passed by the Punjab Assembly the next day, discussions and consultations appear to be the last thing on the Punjab government’s mind.

All this is eerily reminiscent of how the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 was passed. Ironically, one of the most controversial aspects of this law is Section 20 which makes defamation punishable by up to five years in prison despite the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s conclusion that imprisonment is not an appropriate penalty for defamation. With at least two laws dealing with defamation already there, Punjab apparently still needs another one. This latest attempt to police the digital sphere comes on the heels of the Peca Amendment Bill 2024 and a proposed Digital Rights Protection Authority that will reportedly have the power to regulate online content and punish those violating the new Peca law on social media. While the federal government has begun consultations over this new authority with media houses and other stakeholders, this is all being done without a draft bill to comment on.

One can understand the desire to not leave what can and cannot be said online totally unsupervised. However, it has been almost a decade since the state began trying to regulate online content, and social media in Pakistan is arguably more of a free-for-all than ever before with even access to some platforms having to be suspended altogether. At the same time, those actually dedicated to getting the truth out there are under more pressure than ever before with around 23 journalists targeted under Peca between 2019 and 2021 alone. Punishing those doing their jobs is a roundabout way to crack down on falsehoods and makes one doubt whether this is even the objective of all these new laws. An information ecosystem curated by censorship can, in the long run, be just as damaging to truth and democracy as one built around fake news.