Controversial Defamation Law

If the government thought that it could expedite through a highly consequential amendment to the country’s defamation laws, without any opposition or blowback, it was wrong. Journalists, civil society members, free speech advocates, and members of the tech industry are not taking this new law lying down. The law in question is the recently promulgated Prevention of Electronic Crimes (PECA) (Amendment) Act Ordinance 2022.

The amendment is now being taken to the courts. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) challenging the Ordinance, and in a positive development for those protesting the new law, the IHC on Wednesday restrained the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from making arrests under Section 20, the highly contested provision of the new ordinance.

The government should have taken into consideration the fact that the legality of Section 20 of PECA was already controversial and under examination before the IHC. The courts had in previous cases made it clear that nobody except the “aggrieved person” could file a complaint against defamation. Yet the new ordinance increases the ambit of the existing PECA to cover companies, organisations and any other bodies established by the government, which, in its most extreme form, can be said to shelter the government from criticism.

It is not only journalist groups but even some members of government who have expressed reservations on the ordinance. The Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication Syed Aminul Haque has written a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, urging him to withdraw the ordinance and hold consultations with relevant stakeholders on the matter.

It is advised that the government take up this suggestion. There are ways to address the problem of defamation in the media or regulate fake news, without subverting fundamental rights in the process. Worldwide, fake news and irresponsible coverage are filtered out through self-monitoring bodies with an independent framework. The backlash against the Ordinance shows that this was a decision made in haste, and without proper consultation with stakeholders, who could have recommended much better alternatives rather than a law that appears to be built for misuse.

 

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