THE outcome of two libel cases recently decided by courts in England should be edifying for the government — if it chooses to learn from it. The first involved anchorperson Reham Khan’s allegations of corruption against PTI leader Zulfi Bukhari which said he was conniving with Prime Minister Imran Khan to sell the PIA-owned Roosevelt Hotel in New York and buy it back at a lower market price. The other pertained to the action brought by PML-N leader Ishaq Dar against a private TV channel for airing in the UK accusations against him by accountability ‘tsar’ Shahzad Akbar. The latter had on that channel accused Mr Dar of impeding the work of Pakistan’s Financial Monitoring Unit to protect politically exposed persons. In both instances, the complainants stand vindicated and the opposing parties have been ordered to pay them damages and tender apologies. Both have accordingly expressed unequivocal regret for “the significant distress, upset and embarrassment” caused by their allegations.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry used the denouement of the Zulfi Bukhari case in London to underscore the need to bring in similar legal provisions in Pakistan. However, he added disingenuously, such attempts were met with resistance by “media owners in the name of freedom of expression”. It is ironic that the PTI government’s campaign against ‘fake news’ is itself based on disinformation. Its proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority is little more than an attempt to institutionalise censorship so that dissent is erased, unfavourable coverage neatly excised and media outlets compelled to err on the side of caution to such an extent that it renders news gathering a meaningless exercise. Certainly, sections of the press and social media are used as a conduit to disseminate fake news. But as the Dar case shows, government functionaries too are equally guilty of the political agenda underlying such efforts. The two libel actions in the UK illustrate that rather than a draconian media law, a reasonable defamation law fairly applied can better serve the ends of justice. But Pakistan must first repeal the criminal defamation provisions contained in the PPC and Peca that cast a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech. The Defamation Ordinance 2002, a civil statute, is sufficient to ensure proportional protection against reputational damage with exceptions for good faith statements in matters of public interest. Moreover, libel cases should not remain pending indefinitely like a sword over those exercising their right to free speech.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2021

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