Governor may refer defamation bill back to PA after PPP’s wrath

Faizan Bangash & Nadeem Shah & Asim Yasin
Thursday, May 23, 2024

LAHORE: Punjab Governor Sardar Salim Haider is likely to refer the Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 back to the Punjab Assembly, as the PPP, the main ally of the PMLN-led Punjab government, has distanced itself from the controversial bill.

An interesting situation has emerged in the Punjab two days after the passage of the Punjab Defamation Bill 2024.

PPP Punjab Parliamentary leader Syed Ali Haider Gilani said PPP MPAs were not consulted on the bill. Talking to journalists in Multan, Haider Gilani said the PPP has rejected the defamation bill, terming it an act of curbing media freedom. The PPP asserts it will never be a part of media sanctions and stands firm in support of the freedom of the media. Gilani emphasized that the PPP vehemently opposes this bill. He criticised the ruling elite in Punjab for not discussing the bill with the PPP or sharing its contents. He said the PPP had instructed its members to remain absent from the house during discussions on the bill.

Gilani expressed concern over the proposed Defamation Act 2024, which includes the establishment of a special tribunal to address cases related to “fake news”. He argued against the need for such a tribunal, citing international rankings of press freedom.

According to the latest annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, India ranked 159th among 180 countries, while Pakistan stood at 152nd, down from 150th in the previous year. Gilani emphasised the importance of freedom of the press in Pakistan but noted certain restrictions and challenges faced by journalists, including defamation laws and a lack of protection for whistleblowers.

Additionally, former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani has condemned the passage of the Punjab government’s Defamation Act, 2024, and called for its reconsideration. He criticised the act for creating two classes of citizens, treating ordinary citizens differently from holders of public office. Rabbani argued that this provision, which discriminates between normal citizens and the ruling elite, violates fundamental rights under the Constitution.

“The Defamation Act, 2024, which was hastily passed through the Punjab Assembly earlier this week, duplicates existing laws and contains vague definitions of terms such as ‘journalist’ and ‘newspaper.’ The act imposes preliminary fines without trial and excludes the application of the law of evidence,” he said.

Raza Rabbani pointed out that two legal instruments, namely the Defamation Ordinance, 2002, and the Punjab Defamation Act, of 2012, already exist, and it would have been more prudent to make amendments to these statutes instead. He criticised the Punjab government for not waiting for the 15-member Select Committee, which was reviewing the law, to submit its report, nor did it consider the viewpoints of journalists and civil society.

Regarding the act’s clause on constitutional offices, he said that it defines offices of the security forces as apart from constitutional posts, which he believes is incorrect. Furthermore, he expressed concern about the act’s exclusion from the umbrella of the Qanun-e-Shahadat Ordinance, 1984, and questioned the evidentiary standards that will be applied to defamation cases heard under the law. He also criticised the act’s provision for the appointment of the Punjab Defamation Tribunal, saying that it gives the provincial government undue power and violates the principles of judicial independence.

Meanwhile, sources said that a senior party leader from Punjab has conveyed the reservations of party members on the bill to PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. PPP’s Punjab Secretary-General Syed Hassan Murtaza said that while the PPP opposed the character assassination of anyone in the media, it was unfair to pass the bill without taking stakeholders into confidence. He said the Punjab government should have negotiated with the PPP.

Following the opposition from the PPP, the role of the Governor’s House has become significant. The governor can refer the bill back to the assembly for reconsideration, and if the assembly sends it back to the Governor’s House again, it will assume the shape of law within a stipulated period. The Punjab governor could not be contacted.