A new threat to freedom of expression
At separate meetings in Karachi on August 2, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) strongly criticised the new defamation bill that the government introduced in the National Assembly on July 29.
The bill seeks to make amendments in the Defamation Ordinance, 2002 – already a source of friction between the press and the government – to further enhance the severity of its punitive clause. It makes the publisher, editor, reporter and also the distributor liable for punishment, for any action deemed to be defamatory, by way of imprisonment for a period of three months to a year along with a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 300,000.
The purpose of this punitive clause, obviously, is to strike fear in the hearts of all those associated with the press so as to impose on them a dreadfully restrictive self-censorship.
The move is clearly a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. It is within the purview of the Constitution that the press seeks to perform its duty as a defender and protector of public interest.
It neither seeks nor receives any privileges to perform that role, and hence any special laws to curb its freedom would amount to negation of a constitutional right and discouragement of a vital activity in pursuit of public interest.
Notably, no press-specific punitive laws exist in any of the established democracies. That, of course, does not mean that people in those societies do not think they have reputations to protect.
They, in fact, regard press freedom as part of an overarching fundamental democratic right to freedom of expression.
Those transgressing the limits of this freedom are subject to libel laws, which already exist in this country, too, to punish anyone guilty of having caused defamation; the same should take care of defamers in the press as well.
However, there is no denying that the press has a unique power to make or unmake reputations. So it is necessary to ensure that this power is not misused by anyone.
The representative bodies of the press do recognise this important need and have been, therefore, responding to successive governments’ complaints in this respect with the offer to form a self-regulatory body. Indeed, as pointed out by the APNS in its Monday meeting, the present government had reached an agreement with the APNS and CPNE to set up a press council to decide defamation complaints. But for reasons better known to the government it has chosen to ignore that agreement, and to go on to make more draconian the black law that the Defamation Ordinance, 2002, is.
If there is for certain one thing for which President General Pervez Musharraf is widely given ungrudging credit, it is continuing with unprecedented press freedom. It is unfortunate indeed that the government under him should now resort to a measure that can easily annul that credit. But it is still not too late for the government to step back from the path of muzzling the press.
While the two proposed amendments have been referred to the Assembly’s standing committee on law and parliamentary affairs, Prime Minister Shujaat Hussain has said that objectionable clauses of the bill will be discussed with the press bodies and their concerns will be accommodated.
Hopefully, the government will soon invite the representatives of these bodies and instead of insisting on pressing ahead with the amendments with some minor changes, it will facilitate the establishment of a self-regulatory press council to deal with the defamation issue.
Source: Business Recorder