NA passes defamation bill amid objections
ISLAMABAD – Rejecting opposition’s objections, the ruling coalition on August 19 passed a defamation bill designed mainly to protect public figures from slander by enhanced punishment and speedier trial.
Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain was present in the National Assembly to oversee the passage of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill that he had vowed to bring at the outset of his brief tenure in office in June.
This may be reflective of the idea that Shujaat is keen to take credit of the move, which is apparently aimed at barring media from highlighting and criticising government’s wrongdoing.
The idea is having enough potential to support the observation of many opposition legislators that the ruling party would do extra effort to pass the bill from the Senate either on August 20 or August 21, in any case before Shujaat’s departure, to make it a law.
Thursday’s (August 19) vote on the bill came after an abortive move by opposition parties to delay it, forcing an adjournment of the house for lack of quorum following a walkout to protest against Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain’s indecision about admitting their privilege and adjournment motions.
The ruling coalition rejected a motion by the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal to refer the bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology to determine whether it was in accord with Quran and Sunnah and one by the People’s Party Parliamentarians to circulate it for eliciting public opinion until September 30.
The prime minister intervened in a brief debate after the opposition parties ended their walkout to say that there was no need to refer the bill to the CII because nobody could deny that Islam disallowed falsehood and slander that the law sought to check.
The Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Mohammad Raza Hayat Hiraj, rejected the opposition’s argument that the new law was unnecessary in the presence of existing laws on defamation and the fears voiced by some critics that it would be used to gag the press and shield government functionaries from criticism of their wrong doings. He called it an ‘efficacious remedy’ against slander.
A statement of objects and reasons accompanying the bill complained of a “general tendency to scandalize and defame others, including public figures” to injure their reputation “either for ulterior motives or through irresponsible conduct.
The standing committee has omitted the controversial Clause 3 of the bill, relating to the liability of publishers, editor, sub editors and reporters from the bill. When the bill was introduced in the National Assembly, journalists protested over the Clause 3 of it and termed it against the spirit of the freedom of press and the Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain promised that it would be omitted from the bill.
But opposition members said they still feared the law would serve as the sword of Damocles for the press and criticized enhanced punishments, including imprisonment of up to five years. An ‘originator’, or the initiator of a defamatory imputation, would be liable to a minimum compensatory damage of Rs300,000 and a minimum fine of Rs100,000.
According to bill passed by the National Assembly, the district court shall have the jurisdiction to try the cases under this ordinance. The bill suggested that an appeal against the final decision and decree of the court shall lie to the High Court within 30 days and high court shall decided the appeal within 60 days. The bill will now be sent to the Senate today (August 20) for its approval.
Earlier, the entire opposition walked out of the house in protest after the speaker reserved his rulings on two privilege motions tabled by the MMA and as many adjournment motions by the PPP.
Liaquat Baloch, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Saad Rafiq, Ms. Sherry Rehman, Dr. Farid Piracha and Nayyar Bokhari expressed their views. “The government is already targeting the press specially Nawa-i-Waqt group,” Shah Mehmood Qureshi said. Liaquat Baloch said “the newspaper like Nawa-i-Waqt is being punished only for publishing truth.”
The MMA complained of breach of the privilege of its members by a reported statement by Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat accusing the MMA and the Jamaat-i-Islami of links with terror suspects. The house was adjourned until 5.30pm on August 20.
Source: Dawn, Business Recorder, The News, The Nation, Daily Times