LAHORE: The Lahore High Court has ruled that Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016 (Peca), which deals with offences against dignity of a person, is not unconstitutional but in conformity with the Constitution and promotes the right to dignity.

“Defamation is an injury to a man’s reputation. The freedom of speech or expression does not authorise one person to lower another in the esteem of his peers or to expose him to hatred, ridicule or contempt,” Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh observes in a 30-page judgement issued on a petition of singer Meesha Shafi and others.

The petitioners sought quashment of an FIR under cyber crime law on a complaint of actor-cum-singer Ali Zafar on the charge of running a malicious campaign on social media against him.

They also assailed the validity of Section 20 of the Peca as being in violation of fundamental rights of the citizens protected under the Constitution.

Justice Sheikh had on Wednesday dismissed the petition with cost while the judgement was released on Thursday. The judge had reserved the judgement in December 2021.

The judge, in his verdict, observes that a bare reading of Section 20 of the Peca shows that it encompasses a wide range of objectionable / offensive acts and “harm to reputation”.

He says the petitioners’ contention that it (section 20) stifles free speech is misconceived.

The judge observes that nobody can be given a licence to defame another or do anything that may impinge on his dignity.

“In my opinion, the phraseology of Section 20 is broad enough to cover not only defamation but also the use of offensive and derisive language,” he adds.

Rejecting another argument of the petitions that the Peca is discriminatory, the judge holds that the Peca does not override the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).

He notes that the petitioners’ contention that the Section 20 is vague is also misconceived.

The judge maintains that the Section 20 does not violate articles 4 and 25 of the Constitution in any way.

Deciding the challenge to the FIR against the petitioners, the judge observes that during investigation the FIA checked the petitioners’ social media accounts and also recorded statements of a number of people from both sides.

He says the agency submitted its investigation report before the trial court after thorough investigation.

“Therefore, it cannot be said that their finding regarding guilt of the petitioner is based on no evidence,” he adds.

Justice Sheikh says the petitioners allege that the FIR is mala fide as respondent (Zafar) wants to pressurise the witnesses who are to testify for them in a defamation suit.

The judge observes that the question as to whether a particular act is mala fide requires factual inquiry which cannot be undertaken by this court. He notes that the petitioners would, however, be at liberty to raise this issue before the trial court.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2022

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