The latest defamation bill further tightens restrictions on free speech in Pakistan

Punjab Assembly House in Lahore, Pakistan. Image by Voice of America via Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Punjab Assembly House in Lahore, Pakistan. Image by Voice of America via Wikipedia. Public Domain.

On May 20, 2024, the legislative assembly of the state of Punjab in Pakistan passed the Defamation Bill 2024 despite strong protests from the opposition benches and journalists in the gallery. The bill focuses on limiting the spread of fake news across print, electronic, and social media platforms against government officials and institutions. This bill has a jurisdictional issue as it would apply to people outside the state of Punjab as well.

Under the bill, any individual can be held liable for making false, misleading, or defamatory claims against public officials and private citizens via print, electronic, and social media. The bill also imposes fines of up to PKR 3 million (USD 10,788) for the guilty and provides power to the tribunal to direct authorities to suspend or block websites or social media accounts of the defendants.

Due to severe criticism from civil society and journalists, who have termed it a “draconian, regressive and a step towards dictatorship” and a tool to suppress dissent and criticism — particularly targeting journalists — Punjab Governor Sardar Saleem Haider has hinted at the possibility of the bill being sent back to the assembly for further consultation and review.

The defamation bill has not only had a chilling effect among journalists and civil society, but digital rights activists have also voiced their opinion on the matter.

Barrister Rida Hosainn tweeted about the main objective of the bill:

Farieha Aziz, co-founder of Bolo Bhi (an organization working on digital rights), explains how vloggers will also be a target now:

Lawyer Salahuddin Ahmed highlights that the act does not allow the defendant the right to appeal without filing an application:

The Digital Rights Foundation put forth a comparison of the Defamation Ordinance 2002 and Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 and and provided a legal analysis to highlight the bill's problematic aspects. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned the content and language of the bill, noting that it proposes a parallel structure to adjudicate defamation claims.

The Joint Action Committee for People's Rights, along with journalist unions and newspaper associations, plans to challenging the bill in court. Bolo Bhi held a zoom session with lawyers to refute the narrative that is being built that the bill provides protection to women.

PEMRA restrains media on court coverage

After the bill was passed, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a notification instructing media outlets to refrain from airing tickers or headlines of court proceedings, allowing them to report only on written court orders. The Islamabad High Court Journalists Association (IHCJA) and the Press Association of the Supreme Court filed a petition against PEMRA's directive. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) restrained PEMRA from taking any action against private television channels for court reporting, while Lahore High Court (LHC) issued notices to the federal government and PEMRA regarding petitions challenging the ban on live coverage of judicial proceedings.

Journalist Benazir Shah believes that PEMRA's recent notification is aligned with the new defamation law and aims at complete censorship, stating:

History of defamation law in Pakistan

After the dictator General Pervez Musharraf came to power in 2001, the Defamation Ordinance, 2002 was passed to suppress print and electronic media. It was later amended and became the Defamation Act in 2012. Pakistan has three pieces of legislation covering defamation offenses: civil (Section 3 of the Defamation Ordinance 2002), criminal (Section 499 of the Penal Code) and and the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016, enacted during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. This ordinance was made stricter after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government came into power, with the addition of Section 20, “Offences Against the Dignity of a Natural Person,” which excluded institutions and state officials from its ambit.

Prime Minister Imran Khan justified the amendment by stating that it would control ‘obscene’ online content. However, it faced strong resistance from many quarters, as it was widely perceived as a tool for political victimization.

Global Voices interviewed Farieha Aziz, Co-founder of Bolo Bhi, on WhatsApp, to ask about why, when a defamation ordinance already existed, there was a need for a new one. She explained:

The Defamation Ordinance was already being applied to social media, with singer and actor Meesha Shafi's case being the most prominent example among many others. However, they wanted to create special procedures for themselves and expand the law to ensure their authority was not limited in any way. They made sure to make it more coercive, as reflected in the language.

PECA and the Official Secrets Act

Last year, just before the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s government (a coalition formed after then Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted through a vote of no confidence in April 2022) was dissolved in August 2023, it passed several laws impacting digital spaces and the rights of people online. An amendment to further tighten the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 was expected but did not pass.

One of the bills was the Personal Data Protection Bill May 2023. Recently the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication set up a consultation session link, which was open from May 15–May 27. Stakeholders submitted their suggestions for improving the bill, and a meeting will be called soon.

On May 9, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif approved a draft to amend PECA 2016 to regulate social media through legislation. The draft also proposed establishing a Digital Rights Protection Authority to promote responsible internet usage, ensure compliance with regulations, and foster a positive digital ecosystem in collaboration with media houses in the country.

Regarding PECA, Aziz said, “We can't be certain if the upcoming amendments in PECA are the same ones that were on the PDM's agenda, but we are assuming it could be. We do know that more draconian amendments are coming soon. A committee has been formed for consultation; however, no draft has been shared with the public.”

A week before the passing of the Defamation Bill 2024, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted on X, a platform banned by the government, warning against sharing classified information/documents on social media. He emphasized that people would face heavy fines and punishment under the Official Secrets Act 2023.

These developments are interlinked with the recently passed defamation bill and will significantly impact freedom of speech and press. With each new law, citizens and journalists are losing their right to speak freely or criticize government entities, as guaranteed by Article 19 of Pakistan's Constitution.

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