Punjab governor says ‘possibility’ of sending defamation bill back for review

Published May 23, 2024
Punjab Governor Sardar Saleem Haider speaks in an interview on Thursday. — Geo News screengrab
Punjab Governor Sardar Saleem Haider speaks in an interview on Thursday. — Geo News screengrab

Punjab Governor Sardar Saleem Haider on Thursday raised the possibility of sending the Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, back to the assembly for further consultation and review amid uproar over its passing.

The Punjab Assembly had passed the defamation bill on Monday, rejecting all amendments proposed by the opposition amid protests by the PTI-backed Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) and journalists covering parliamentary proceedings.

The SIC members tore apart copies of the bill after the House passed it through a voice vote. Subsequently, more than 80 civil society organisations registered their protest on Tuesday, outrightly rejecting the bill which was a “gross infringement on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and press freedom”.

The Judicial Activism Panel (JAP) — a self-styled public interest forum based in Lahore — had also urged the Punjab government to reconsider the bill, calling it “draconian”, “illogical” and a “violation of the judgments of the superior courts.”

In an interesting development, even the PPP, which is an ally of the PML-N government, had distanced itself from the controversial bill.

Speaking about the entire matter in an interview on Geo News programme ’Capital Talk, the Punjab governor was questioned about the possibility of him sending the bill back to the assembly for review to which he said: “There is definitely a possibility present that I ask the provincial government to revisit the bill and try to improve it.”

The Punjab governor said he had not seen the bill as of yet, “but from what I’ve heard and from the controversy across the country, it seems that the bill needs to be rethought.”

Governor Haider said it would have been better if the matter was not rushed and the bill was presented after due time for a discussion with all stakeholders.

However, he said: “That bill has now passed but I still say that does not mean it is the final word and there should be discussions on it with journalist associations. All stakeholders should sit together and find some way out after cooling heads on both sides with which these matters can be resolved amicably.”

The governor said there was some merit to the bill. “If you look at the social media aspect of it […] Anyone can blame anyone on anything […] the person who is blamed, he can say whatever he wants, however, no one is willing to listen to him,” he said, adding that it would be better if the bill was handled after addressing all such concerns.

The governor said he would review the bill with his legal team. “It will be my strong wish that the bill is reviewed again,” the governor said, reiterating that all parties consider it together.

“If you need my help then I will be present there,” Haider said, calling for all stakeholders to debate the bill’s additions and subtractions.

“I am sure that the bill will be revisited and a solution will then be found through a consensus,” he said.

Defamation bill

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.

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.

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