• Bill allows special tribunal to penalise those involved in drafting or disseminating ‘fake news’
• Opposition lawmakers tear up copies of bill; press gallery sees walkout against hasty adoption of ‘black law’

LAHORE: The Punjab Assembly on Monday passed the Defamation Bill, 2024, rejecting all amendments proposed by the opposition amid protests by the PTI-backed Sunni Ittehad Council and journalists covering parliamentary proceedings.

The SIC members tore apart copies of the bill after the house passed it through a voice vote.

Vetted by the Special Committee-1 in the absence of standing committees, the bill was tabled by Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman after the PML-N government refused to delay voting on the bill, even for a week, at the request of journalists.

On the occasion, the press gallery members walked out of the assembly to boycott the proceedings. They rejected the bill as a “curb on free media”.

The draft law proposes a special tribunal to try those involved in drafting, publishing and/or airing “fake news”. The tribunal shall decide the case within six months and may impose a fine of up to Rs3 million. However, in cases of allegations against individuals holding constitutional posts, the high court will hear the cases.

Also, the bill says the government will provide legal assistance to women and transgender individuals in defamation cases through an official legal team.

The government earlier did not agree to send the draft bill to a selected committee comprising opposition members to invite all stakeholders for consultation, saying it had already been discussed threadbare by the special committee.

Opposition leader Malik Ahmed Khan Bhachhar wondered why the treasury was “in a hurry to pass the bill before midnight”.

The SIC lawmakers waved placards and raised slogans against the bill, besides submitting 10 amendments to it.

PTI-backed SIC member Rana Shahbaz Ahmad claimed that opposition members of the special committee were not present during the vetting of the bill — one of three members was abroad, another in a court of law and the third was not heard by the treasury members.

He was of the opinion that the judge of the tribunal must be appointed by the chief justice, rather than the government, otherwise it would be damaging for society.

PTI-backed SIC lawmaker Ahmar Rashid Bhatti claimed that the law violated Articles 8, 202 and 203. He said the word ‘defamation’ that had been omitted from the Constitution through the fourth amendment was being reintroduced into the statutes.

PML-N lawmaker Rai Ahsan Raza wondered if someone outside Punjab levelled allegations against anyone, how the proposed law would be implemented.

On the other hand, PTI-backed SIC lawmaker Jam Amanullah feared the law would benefit SHOs and ‘shoe-shiners’ — a term used for those having close connection with the military establishment.

Also, PTI-backed SIC legislator, Junaid Afzal Sahi, believed the law was aimed at targeting his party, after the media had already been gagged.

In a rare precedent, Advocate-General Khalid Ishaq joined the house proceedings and while responding to the objections raised by the opposition, read out some important points of the bill.

‘Black law’

The journalists after boycotting house proceedings gathered outside the assembly building and protested against the ‘black law’.

Lahore Press Club president Arshad Ansari told the protesting journalists that the government engaged them in talks for more than two hours. He said the government did not agree to the suggestion of postponing its approval for one week to allow the stakeholders to have consensus on the matter.

He recalled that Maryam Nawaz Sharif had joined the journalists’ protest against the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) when it was being amended by the PTI government.

“But now her party’s government in the federation and Punjab are implementing laws aimed at gagging the media,” Mr Ansari regretted.

Warning the government of protest and sit-in on the issue, the LPC president said a joint action committee comprising representatives of print and electronic media bodies would decide a future course of action within two days.

Meanwhile, Speaker Malik Mohammad Ahmed Khan prorogued the house for an indefinite period on the completion of the agenda for the day.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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