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NEW YORK: The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm on Tuesday that Punjab hastily enacted a defamation law that is likely to greatly restrict press freedom, and the country’s Supreme Court issued notices to 34 media outlets in connection with their programming.

On Saturday, June 8, acting Punjab governor and speaker of the provincial assembly Malik Ahmad Khan, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party member, approved a defamation law passed on May 20 despite concerns from journalists, human rights organizations, and opposition lawmakers, according to news reports.

The law, which is being challenged by journalists and press bodies in the Lahore High Court, replaces Punjab’s Defamation Ordinance, 2002 and loosely defines “defamation” and “broadcasting” to include social media platforms. Separately, on June 5, Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued show-cause notices to 34 news channels, asking them to explain, within two weeks, why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against them for airing press conferences by two parliamentarians who criticized the judiciary, according to multiple news reports.

The court issued the order while hearing a contempt case against the two parliamentarians, who questioned senior judges alleging the ISI was interfering in judicial matters.

“Pakistan’s Punjab government must swiftly repeal the recently enacted defamation law and ensure that any such legislation does not impinge on press freedom,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Beh Lih Yi. “The media must also be allowed to broadcast key political speeches and developments without interference or fear of reprisal.”

Under Punjab’s new defamation law, claimants may initiate legal action “without proof of actual damage or loss.” Penalties range from three million rupees (US $10,792) to punitive damages 10 times that amount. Tribunals may also order defendants to tender an unconditional apology or issue a directive to suspend or block the social media account or website where the alleged defamatory content was disseminated.

The law also mandates special tribunals, whose members will be appointed by the Punjab government in consultation with the chief justice of the Lahore High Court to adjudicate offences within 180 days.

According to Farieha Aziz, a freelance journalist and co-founder of the digital rights organization Bolo Bhi, the appointment procedure represented a conflict of interest because those who select tribunal members can also be complainants.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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