• PPP governor’s visit to Dubai paves the way for Punjab PA speaker to enact controversial bill
• Journalists move LHC against the law; announce boycott of budget sessions, official events
• PPP says not in the loop as press club officials accuse it of being in cahoots with PML-N govt

LAHORE: The controversial legislation about defamation which imposes curbs on press freedom became a provincial law on Saturday after acting Governor Malik Ahmad Khan — a PML-N member — gave his assent to the bill in the absence of PPP-nominated Governor Sardar Saleem Haider, who had embarked on leave after assuring “consultations” on the Punjab Defamation Act 2024.

The law, which had already drawn much flak from journalists, civil society organisations, as well as the opposition, however, soon landed in the Lahore High Court (LHC) after a joint petition was filed by two journalists challenging its legality.

The petition asked the high court to strike down the defamation law, saying it violated the fundamental rights of citizens protected in the Constitu­tion. Journalists Riaz Ahmad Raja and Jaffar Ahmad Yar, who moved the pela, said that in the pre­sence of two legal instruments i.e. the Defa­mation Ordinance 2002 and the Punjab Defama­tion Act 2012, it would have been better to amend the existing laws rather than coming up with a whole new legislation.

It said the definition of ‘journalist’ and ‘newspaper’ provided in the impugned law was vague, irrational and ambiguous.

According to the petition, the law provides initiation of defamation claims without any proof, which is a clear violation of Article 10-A (fair trial) of the Constitution.

The petition argued that it was ridiculous and unconstitutional to allow a person to bring a claim of defamation without any proof.

It stated that the law provided two different procedures to hear claims against private individuals and public office holders, which raised questions on the fairness, impartiality, and equality clauses of the Constitution.

It further said that removing the impugned Act from the umbrella of the law of evidence enabled the special tribunal constituted under this law to hold “summary trials”, which would be a clear negation of the right to a fair trial.

According to the petition, a trial on the basis of affidavits filed by the litigant parties, as is the practice in family law cases, cannot be seen as a fair trial since the defamation law entails penal consequences. The petition asked the court to declare that the impugned law is against the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.

PPP faces flak

After the bill was passed by the assembly last month amid much criticism, the governor — a PPP man — had hinted that he would send the bill back to the provincial assembly for further consultations due to the criticism it had garnered from the journalist community.

But Governor Sardar Saleem Haider left for Dubai paving the way for the acting governor Malik Ahmad Khan to sign the controversial bill into a piece of legislation.

The journalist community took exception to this and accused the PPP of being in cahoots with the PML-N government over this legislation.

A statement issued by the Lahore Press Club (LPC) said the PPP had expressed its reservations over the controversial bill, but the conduct of its governor suggested the party was “working hand in glove with the government”. LPC President Arshad Ansari said the governor went abroad without sending the bill back to the assembly, which “gives an impression” that PPP was “opposing the law just for point-scoring”. However, he added, the journalists had rejected the law earlier and would do so again.

A joint action committee of provincial and national journalist organisations, in a meeting at the press club, decided to boycott the coverage of the federal and provincial budget sessions to express their displeasure towards the law. Similarly, they would also stay away from official events of the Punjab government and its allies. The committee also decided to organise protest rallies and processions against the bill.

The participants of the meeting decided to pursue legal action against the controversial bill. It was unanimously agreed that besides the parties in the government coalition, other political parties, human rights organisations, and bar councils would be consulted to put up a joint front against the bill.

The committee resolved to approach the United Nations and international human rights organisations against the controversial law.

Meanwhile, the PPP tried to dissuade the impression of being a part of efforts to enact the legislation, with its leader Hassan Murtaza claiming that PML-N took advantage of the absence of the governor and signed the bill.

Mr Murtaza said the party would soon convene a meeting to take up the matter, adding the party was not in the loop with the government on the issue of the defamation law.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2024

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