Dangerous law

Published May 17, 2024

OUR political leaders never seem to learn from their mistakes. The Punjab Assembly is due to vote on a new defamation law for the province, which, its government says, has been designed to ‘stop fake news’. Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, the provincial information minister sought to assure the media’s growing apprehensions regarding the proposed law in the following words: “[Only] a person who lies under the guise of a journalist with a specific agenda will face the music under this proposed law.”

Her choice of words is telling. The PML-N, which leads the government in Punjab, has had a rough few years as far as its image-building efforts are concerned. Even though it has returned to power at the centre and Punjab, its public image has proven extremely difficult to rehabilitate. The minister’s words merely reflect the frustration her party feels at those who have been making the job more difficult.

The PML-N’s first attempt at putting a muzzle on this new class of ‘influencers’, which set the narrative on social media platforms like X, Facebook, TikTok and others, took the form of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 — a law that was widely criticised for placing draconian limitations on Pakistanis’ digital rights. Later, the PTI, too, tried to build on Peca to make its worst aspects more ‘effective’ in silencing critics. Thankfully, both efforts were largely neutralised, owing to the efforts of journalists and rights activists who identified the severe consequences for freedom of speech and expression that such legislation would entail. Unfortunately, the PML-N has now returned with what seems to be an even sharper weapon to silence criticism.

Much more detailed than the Defamation Ordinance, 2002, it will replace, the new Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024 goes even further than the dictatorship-era regulations laid out in the original law. With a dangerously loose definition of defamation, much higher financial penalties and blanket restrictions on commenting on ongoing cases, it seems to have been drafted with the sole purpose of striking fear in anyone who may be contemplating criticising or expressing their frustrations at those currently in power.

Worst still, the law has been finalised without seeking input from civil society, journalists’ unions or even the political opposition. Already, several media organisations and journalists’ representative bodies have denounced the proposed law and intend to fight it.

The Punjab government would be well-advised to put the brakes on this bill till it can get key stakeholders on board. It must remember that the same law can be weaponised against it one day, just as Peca was when the PTI took power. Online defamation is a growing problem, but one cannot cut off the nose to spite one’s face. This issue must be handled with utmost care.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2024

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