Why the critics are opposing Punjab Defamation Bill 2024?

 Some clauses of new law limit the freedom of expression and media

The Punjab Defamation Act 2024 has sparked significant controversy due to several problematic aspects identified by its critics. Key concerns include the duplication of existing laws, vague definitions, imposition of fines without trial, and the exclusion of established evidentiary principles. Critics argue that with the existing Defamation Ordinance of 2002 and Punjab Defamation Act of 2012 already in place, amending these laws would have been more appropriate than introducing entirely new legislation.

The bill's purported aim is to protect individuals from false and defamatory statements across various media platforms, but opponents believe it is primarily designed to suppress free speech, especially on social media. Media stakeholders, civil society, and opposition parties have voiced strong objections, suggesting that the legislation disproportionately favors public officials over private citizens. This bias is seen in the bill’s emphasis on shielding "constitutional office bearers" from defamation, which critics  argue undermines the constitutional guarantees of free speech and judicial independence under Articles 19 and 175.

One contentious issue is the bill's definition of “constitutional offices,” which includes military leaders such as the chiefs of the army, navy, and air force. Critics assert these are service positions rather than constitutional ones, a distinction that blurs the intended protections and scope of the law. 

Overall, the Punjab Defamation Act 2024 is seen by many as a legal instrument that could curtail freedom of expression and press freedom under the pretext of combating defamation, highlighting the tension between protecting reputations and preserving fundamental democratic rights.

The Punjab Defamation Tribunal, which is to be constituted to take up cases instituted under the new law, has also been widely panned. The power to appoint the tribunal, which would hold the same status as a single-member bench of the Lahore High Court in cases where it was moved by a public office holder, lies in the hands of the provincial government.

Under the law, when dealing with complaints brought before it by private individuals, the tribunal would work normally. But when it takes up complaints brought by public office holders  including armed forces chiefs and judges of the superior judiciary  it would be ‘interchanged’ with a single member LHC bench.

If the tribunal is supposed to be considered a bench of the LHC, then the member shall also be considered and treated as a judge of LHC. 

In addition, since the procedure for the appointment of a high court judge was already given by the Constitution, there was no justification to have a parallel system for picking the tribunal.

Another unique aspect of the new law is the provision for a ‘preliminary decree’, which can be issued along with a fine of up to Rs3 million, without hearing the accused party. This could be dangerous, as the tribunal would be able to impose a decree of Rs3 million in favour of the complainant immediately upon the filing of a complaint. This seems a criminal defamation law as it imposes a serious punishment to begin with. 

                                                                      Khalid Bhatti 

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