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

The SIC members tore apart copies of the bill after it was passed through a voice vote. Vetted by Special Committee-1 in the absence of standing committees, the bill was tabled by Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman. The PML-N government refused to delay the vote, even at the request of journalists.

Following the bill’s passage, press gallery members walked out of the assembly in protest, denouncing the bill as a “curb on free media.”

The draft law proposes the establishment of a special tribunal to try those involved in drafting, publishing, and/or airing “fake news.” The tribunal is mandated to decide cases within six months and can impose fines of up to Rs3 million. In cases involving individuals holding constitutional posts, the high court will hear the cases. Additionally, the bill stipulates that the government will provide legal assistance to women and transgender individuals in defamation cases through an official legal team.

Despite opposition calls to send the draft bill to a select committee for broader consultation, the government insisted it had been sufficiently reviewed by the special committee. Opposition leader Malik Ahmed Khan Bhachhar questioned the urgency to pass the bill before midnight.

SIC lawmakers, including Rana Shahbaz Ahmad and Ahmar Rashid Bhatti, raised concerns about the absence of opposition members during the bill’s vetting and the potential societal impact of tribunal judges being appointed by the government rather than the chief justice. Bhatti also argued that the bill contravened Articles 8, 202, and 203 of the Constitution.

PTI-backed SIC legislator Junaid Afzal Sahi suggested the bill targeted his party and further restricted media freedom. In response to opposition objections, Advocate-General Khalid Ishaq read out key points of the bill during the proceedings.

‘Black Law’ Protest by Journalists

After boycotting the assembly proceedings, journalists gathered outside the assembly building to protest the bill, which they labeled a “black law.” Lahore Press Club president Arshad Ansari criticized the government for not postponing the bill’s approval to allow for stakeholder consensus. He recalled Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s past support for journalists against the PTI government’s amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) and lamented the current government’s stance.

Ansari warned of potential protests and sit-ins, with a joint action committee from print and electronic media bodies set to decide on further actions within two days.

Meanwhile, Speaker Malik Mohammad Ahmed Khan prorogued the house indefinitely upon completing the day’s agenda.



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