LAHORE: The publishing industry, education sector, research and human rights organisations have expressed their concern at the Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill recently passed by the Punjab Assembly and threatened to challenge the proposed legislation in a court of law.

“We believe the bill is an invasion on freedom of expression and critical thinking and will also spell disaster for the printing and publishing industry in Punjab that employs tens of thousands of people,” reads a petition signed by these bodies and issued to the media here on Wednesday.

The signatories included 22 publishing houses and 16 rights and civil society organisations, prominent among them are HRCP, Haqooq-i-Khalq Movement, National Commission for Justice and Peace, Progressive Academics’ Collective, Lahore and Karachi, ASR Resource Centre, Aurat March, Women Democratic Front, Women Action Forum, Progressive Students’ Collective, Authors’ Alliance, Lahore Education and Research Network, and Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee.

They particularly objected to Sections 7 and 8 of the bill as the former empowers the Director General Public Relations (DGPR) or his nominee to raid a publishing house, book store or printing press and confiscate copies of the material the authorities deem violatory, whereas the latter makes it mandatory for all books (local or foreign; first editions or reprints) to seek the approval of the DGPR before they can see the light of the day.

The Section 8(3) enunciates that the DGPR has the power to “refuse permission to import, print or publish a book” if it is “prejudicial to the national interest, culture, religious and sectarian harmony.” The same powers will be exercised by the Muttahida Ulema Board (MUB) for books concerning religion, according to sub-section 8(4).

“It is clear that disguised as a law protecting the foundations of Islam, the bill is an attack on freedom of expression and in conflict with constitutional provisions protecting the same freedoms. We are concerned that the DGPR/MUB does not have the intellectual and physical capacity to evaluate book manuscripts.

“We are also in principle fundamentally opposed to the very idea of seeking approval from a bureaucrat/MUB prior to publishing or selling a book. Equally, we are fully opposed to the confiscatory spirit of the bill sanctioning the DGPR to raid offices and stores. This kind of power has no place in a democracy,” the petition says.

The signatories see the bill is an attack on the already-dwindling publishing industry, especially of Punjab where bookstores are fast turning into stationery shops and publishers are decreasing in number.

They instead suggested that the Punjab government devise policies supporting the publishing industry by helping create cheap paper locally. “Although the bill has gone back to the assembly for discussion, …, we want to send a strong message to the legislators that we will not accept this bill in any form. Even after the legislators address the concerns of the Shia community, the repressive and confiscatory character of the bill will remain intact in sections 7(1), 7(2), 8(1), 8(2), 8(3), 8(4) and 8(12), devised to isolate progressive and critical voices and push publishers out of business.

“If the bill is not scrapped, we reserve our rights to protest, agitate and challenge its constitutionality in order to preserve our right to freedom of expression,” it concludes.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2020

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