Pakistan journalists challenge Punjab defamation act in Lahore High Court News
Voice Of America // Public domain
Pakistan journalists challenge Punjab defamation act in Lahore High Court

Journalists challenged the Punjab Defamation Law, 2024 the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Saturday, branding it “unconstitutional, unlawful, and against the principles of the law,” according to reports in Pakistani media. This move comes just weeks after the Punjab Assembly passed the bill amid fierce opposition and protests from journalists and civil society groups.

The petition filed in the LHC, spearheaded by journalists Jaffar Ahmad Yar and Riaz Ahmad Raja through their lawyers Shahbaz Akmal Jandran & Nadeem Sarwar, challenged several sections of the new law.

The petition criticized the bill for being passed by the acting governor Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan in undue haste without adequate consultation, especially amidst the uproar it had caused in the civil society, with many labeling it a “draconian law” and an “authoritative move.” It also requested the court suspend the operation of the ordinance until a final decision is made on the petition.

One of the petition’s central arguments is against Section 3 of the bill, which allows for defamation claims to be initiated without proof, a provision they claim violates Article 10-A of the constitution and the principles of the law of evidence. Another argument is how Section 5, titled Absolute Privilege, overrides the principles of equality enshrined in Article 25 of the constitution. Other sections of the bill, such as those granting absolute privilege to publications made under government authority, control over “fake” news, differing provisions for private citizen and public office holder and establishing tribunals with substantial judicial powers, are also deemed unconstitutional.

The petition highlighted that the bill’s provisions, including hefty penalties up to 3 million Rupees and the ability to block social media accounts, threaten freedom of expression and are disproportionate and unreasonable. Furthermore, it challenged the establishment of a parallel judicial system under the new law, arguing that this undermines the independence of the judiciary.

The Punjab Assembly approved the Defamation Law, 2024 in May through a voice vote, rejecting all amendments proposed by the opposition. The bill, which aims to address defamation across print, electronic, and social media, was met with significant resistance. Members of PTI-backed Councils and journalists protested vigorously, with some even tearing apart copies of the bill in a display of dissent.

In response to the bill’s passage, more than 80 civil society organizations have expressed their opposition, viewing it as a tool to suppress dissent. This has been amplified by the opposition alliance led by PTI. Bolo Bhi founder Farieha Aziz said it would create a chilling effect on free speech. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) has also condemned the law, calling it a “black law” and a severe encroachment on press freedom.