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Article Pakistan: Controversial Punjab Defamation Act Signed into Law

On May 20, 2024, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Punjab Defamation Act 2024 amid strong protest from opposition lawmakers and media stakeholders. It was signed into law on June 7 by Acting Governor Malik Ahmed Khan.

The bill’s Statement of Objects and Reasons (p.10) says it

envisages legal protection from false, misleading, and defamatory claims made via print, electronic, and social media against public officials and private citizens. These claims and assertions violate peoples’ privacy and damage the reputation and image of public figures or the government by defaming, slandering, and libeling them. This Bill is necessary to contain such unwarranted criticism and dislike for a person or authority.

As reported by Dawn news, the bill was vetted by a special committee instead of a typical standing committee, and on May 13 was moved and tabled by Punjab Minister for Finance and Parliamentary Affairs Mujtaba Shuja ur Rehman. A request was made from opposition lawmakers for proposed amendments and a delay in voting, which was rejected.

Main Features of the Law

Section 3 of the act makes “defamation” actionable as a “civil wrong” and a person can initiate an action “without proof of actual damage or loss and, where defamation is proved, General Damages shall be presumed to have been suffered by the person defamed.” (§ 3.) Defamation is defined in the act to mean:

publication, broadcast or circulation of a false or untrue statement or representation made orally or in writing or visual form either by ordinary form or expression or by electronic or other modern medium, means or devices or through social media or any online or social media website, application or platform, which injures or may have the effect of injuring the reputation of a person or tends to lower him in the estimation of others, or ridicules him, or exposes him to unjust criticism, disliking, contempt or hatred, and such defamation shall also include comments, statements and representations targeted towards certain genders and minorities as contained in section 14 of this Act. (§ 2(h).)

 A person accused of defamation shall have a defense if he can show that:

    • he was performing journalistic activities and broadcasted true news for the information of the public;
    • he was analyzing or discussing a situation in a fair and transparent manner in the public interest through online platform;
    • the matter commented on is fair and in the public interest and is an expression of opinion and not an assertion of fact;
    • the statement is based on truth;
    • assent was given for the publication by the claimant;
    • the matter complained of was privileged communication such as between lawyer and client or between persons having fiduciary relations; and
    • the matter is covered by absolute or qualified privilege. (§ 4.)

Absolute privilege pertains to the publication of statements, reports, notes and proceedings made in federal and provincial legislative assemblies. Qualified privilege applies to “[a]ny fair and accurate publication or broadcast of parliamentary proceedings, or judicial proceedings which the public may attend and statements made to the proper authorities in order to procure the redress of public grievances.” (§§ 5, 6.)                                                                                

Section 8 gives the provincial government the authority to establish civil tribunals to try defamation cases. Under section 13, defendants must file an application seeking permission from the tribunal to defend the claim against them. If the defendant fails to obtain leave to defend, “the allegations of fact in the claim shall be deemed to be admitted and the Tribunal shall forthwith pass a preliminary decree of General Damages in favour of the Claimant on the basis thereof or such other material as the Tribunal may require in the interest of justice.” “General Damages” are set under the Bill at a minimum of 3,000,000 rupees (around US$10,750). (§ 2(k).)

If the case proceeds beyond the preliminary decree and the claim is proven, the tribunal can also impose “special” damages. (§ 2(w) & 21.) In case of “false, frivolous and vexatious claims,” the tribunal shall order “punitive damages” against claimants. (§ 20.)

In addition to damages, the tribunal has the authority to order the defendant to “tender an unconditional apology” and also to “issue a direction to the relevant regulatory authority to suspend or block the social media account of the Defendant, or any other medium or platform covered by this Act through which the defamatory content was disseminated.” (§ 21.)

Cases against persons who are “holders of a Constitutional Office” are instead tried by a special bench of the Lahore High Court. (§ 10(4).)

Reaction to the Law

Opposition lawmakers and media stakeholders have protested against the passage of the law for not taking into account proposed amendments to the bill and that “opposition members of the special committee were not present during the vetting of the bill.” Human rights groups also criticized the haste with which the bill was passed, with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stating that “[f]ive days is too short a period for any meaningful consultation with civil society and digital and mainstream media stakeholders on what is a complex legal proposal affecting an entire digital ecosystem of opinion makers.”

The International Federation of Journalists and its affiliate the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists condemned the bill, “highlight[ing] its potential to be weaponised against critics of the governments.”

The bill was signed into law by the acting governor after Punjab Governor Sardar Saleem Haider, who had previously expressed reservations about it and pledged to consult with media stakeholders before signing it, took leave to travel abroad. Hours after it was granted assent, journalists challenged the law before the Lahore High Court as being “unconstitutional, unlawful and against the principles of the law.” On June 12, the Court placed a temporary suspension on certain sections of the law pending a final judgment. 

Tariq Ahmad, Law Library of Congress
June 26, 2024

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