HRCP: Punjab defamation bill throttles free expression

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Freedom of speech and expression is critical to any democracy. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed grave concern over the draft defamation bill tabled in the Punjab Assembly. “The content and language of the bill is troubling on several counts. First, it proposes a parallel structure to adjudicate claims of defamation. HRCP has consistently decried special parallel judicial structures on the grounds that they invariably violate fundamental rights and other universally accepted norms governing the fair functioning of the judiciary.”

Second, HRCP notes, “the bill proposes to set up defamation tribunals while empowering the government to appoint judges at higher allowances and benefits than what are available to the existing provincial judiciary functioning at the district level.”

Third, as the human rights watchdog notes, “all defamation claims have to be resolved within a short span of 180 days. The bill proposes authorizing defamation tribunals to issue preliminary decrees to the tune of PKR 3 million—without trial—immediately on receiving a defamation claim. This will be a huge blow to freedom of expression and dissent. Such orders are likely to be passed without following due process and ensuring fair trials.”

Fourth, HRCP points out that “the draft law creates a special category of holders of constitutional office, such as the prime minister, chief justices and military chiefs, among others. Defamation claims pertaining to these categories will be heard by special one-member tribunals comprising a judge of the Lahore High Court. This provision violates the principle of equality of citizens and equality before the law.”

HRCP is “also concerned by the haste in which this bill is being tabled. Five 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.”

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