Punjab Assembly passes controversial defamation bill amid protests

In a contentious session on Monday, the Punjab Assembly passed the Defamation Bill, 2024, rejecting all proposed amendments from the opposition. This move triggered protests from the PTI-backed Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) and journalists present to cover the proceedings.

As the assembly approved the bill through a voice vote, SIC members dramatically tore apart copies of the legislation in protest. The bill, vetted by the Special Committee-1 in the absence of standing committees, was presented by Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman. Despite requests from journalists for a week-long delay to consider the bill further, the PML-N government insisted on immediate voting.

In response, journalists walked out in protest, labelling the bill as a severe restriction on press freedom. The new law establishes a special tribunal to handle cases involving the creation, publication, or broadcasting of “fake news,” with verdicts required within six months and fines up to Rs3 million. For defamation cases against individuals in constitutional positions, the high court will preside. Additionally, the bill ensures government-provided legal assistance for women and transgender individuals in defamation cases.

The government’s refusal to involve a selected committee with opposition members for broader consultation sparked further dissent. Opposition leader Malik Ahmed Khan Bhachhar questioned the urgency of passing the bill before midnight. SIC members, led by Rana Shahbaz Ahmad, criticised the absence of opposition representatives during the bill’s vetting. Ahmad emphasised that the tribunal judge should be appointed by the chief justice rather than the government to maintain judicial independence.

PTI-backed SIC member Ahmar Rashid Bhatti argued that the bill contravenes Articles 8, 202, and 203 of the Constitution, noting that the term “defamation” had been previously removed via the fourth amendment. PML-N lawmaker Rai Ahsan Raza raised concerns about the law’s applicability to allegations made outside Punjab. Another SIC legislator, Jam Amanullah, expressed fears that the law would empower local law enforcement and those with military connections unfairly. Junaid Afzal Sahi of the SIC suspected the bill was a targeted attack on PTI, accusing the government of silencing media critics.

In an unusual move, Advocate-General Khalid Ishaq attended the assembly session, defending the bill by addressing opposition objections.

Outside the assembly, journalists continued their protest against what they termed a “black law.” Lahore Press Club President Arshad Ansari highlighted the government’s refusal to delay the bill’s passage for broader consensus. He pointed out the irony of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s past support against restrictive media laws when her party now pushes similar legislation.

Ansari warned of potential protests and sit-ins, with a joint action committee from print and electronic media set to determine future actions. Amidst the unrest, Speaker Malik Mohammad Ahmed Khan adjourned the session indefinitely following the completion of the day’s agenda.

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