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Punjab Defamation Act 2024: Perspective implications

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Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
The Punjab government has recently enacted the Punjab Defamation Act 2024, which boasts a broader scope compared to the existing Defamation Ordinance 2002. This comprehensive Act significantly impacts writers, analysts, editors, journalists, vloggers, and both traditional and social media practitioners. While the Act introduces several noteworthy provisions, it also presents both advantages and disadvantages when contrasted with the Defamation Ordinance 2002 and internationally accepted norms and practices.

It has widened the definition of broadcaster compared to Defamation Ordinance 2002 to a large extent where the Defamation Ordinance 2002 provides a comprehensive definition of broadcasting, encompassing various forms of communication, but lacks specificity regarding modern platforms like social media, potentially leading to ambiguity. In contrast, the Punjab Defamation Act 2024 offers a more updated and specific definition, explicitly including social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and TikTok, thereby reflecting contemporary modes of communication and enhancing clarity.

The Punjab defamation Act 2024 has broadened the definition of defamation compared to Defamation Ordinance 2002. While both the Defamation Ordinance 2002 and the Punjab Defamation Act 2024 share similarities with the internationally accepted definition of defamation, they exhibit some distinct strengths and weaknesses.

The 2002 Ordinance provides a comprehensive but somewhat outdated definition, lacking specificity regarding modern mediums like social media and potentially leaving gaps in legal coverage.

On the other hand, the 2024 Act modernizes the definition by explicitly including social media platforms and addressing specific concerns related to defamation targeting certain genders and minorities. However, it may suffer from potential overreach and complexity due to its broad scope and multiple clauses.

The internationally acceptable definition of a journalist is often considered to be someone who gathers, assesses, creates, and presents news and information to the public. However, it’s worth noting that the definition can vary slightly depending on cultural, legal, and professional contexts. Ultimately, a journalist serves as a watchdog, informing the public about events, issues, and developments in society, and upholding principles of accuracy, fairness, and objectivity.

Interestingly, the Defamation Ordinance does not have a definition of a journalist whereas Punjab Defamation Act 2024 does. The definition of a journalist outlined in the Punjab Act 2024 is more specific and legally binding compared to the internationally accepted definition.

The Punjab Act specifies that a journalist is someone engaged by various media, including newspapers, magazines, news websites, or social media, and encompasses freelancers with a substantial track record. This definition includes the evolving role of social media in news dissemination.

In contrast, the internationally accepted definition emphasizes the core functions and principles of journalism, such as informing the public about events and upholding accuracy and fairness. Both definitions acknowledge the importance of journalistic principles but differ in scope and specificity, with the Punjab Act catering to a legal framework within Punjab and the international definition providing a broader understanding across different contexts.

However, both the Defamation Ordinance and Punjab Defamation Act 2024 do have definitions of the editor which when compared to the internationally accepted definition of editor both have strengths and weaknesses. Both of them emphasize the responsibility of an editor for the content of statements and decisions to publish or circulate, including operators or users of social media platforms.

In contrast, the internationally accepted definition of an editor is broader, encompassing not only content decisions but also responsibilities in shaping content quality, managing teams, and ensuring alignment with editorial standards and objectives. While the Punjab Act and the Ordinance focus on specific legal and digital media contexts, the internationally accepted definition offers a more comprehensive view of an editor’s role across traditional and digital media landscapes, highlighting the multifaceted nature of editorial responsibilities.

Comparing the definitions of “newspaper” in the Punjab Defamation Act 2024 and the Defamation Ordinance 2002 reveals similarities and differences in scope and terminology. The Punjab Act expands the definition to include websites, applications, or other social media platforms issuing public news or occurrences, acknowledging the digital shift in media consumption. Additionally, the Punjab Act grants the government authority to declare other periodical works as newspapers through official notification, whereas the Defamation Ordinance vests this power with the Federal Government.

Comparing both definitions, the internationally accepted definition recognizes newspapers in various formats, including digital platforms like websites and social media applications reflects the changing landscape of journalism and acknowledges the importance of online news sources in today’s society.

The excerpts from the Defamation Ordinance of 2002 outline specific definitions and penalties related to defamation, including minimum amounts for damages and remedies such as apologies and compensatory payments (e.g., minimum compensatory damages of Rs. 50,000 and Rs. 300,000 for the originator). Similarly, the Punjab Act specifies minimum compensatory damages of Rs. 3,000,000 for general damages.

The section of the Punjab Defamation Act 2024 imposes stringent restrictions on commenting during legal proceedings, applying to all involved parties and carrying significant fines for violations, escalating with each day of non-compliance. Unlike many international practices, this provision lacks specific defenses, prohibiting any justification for breaches. While limitations on public statements during legal proceedings are common, the severity of fines and absence of recognized defenses in this Act may raise concerns about potential constraints on freedom of expression and due process rights, diverging from typical international norms and potentially impacting the fairness and transparency of legal proceedings.

The implementation of the Defamation Act carries various implications, depending on one’s perspective. For bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers, and TikTokers, particularly those focusing on news, current affairs, commentary, analysis, and viewpoints, this law is expected to instill much-needed discipline and promote sanity by deterring the dissemination of derogatory, baseless, and frivolous personal comments that often lack connection to truth or reality but contribute to sensationalism and societal unrest. Conversely, traditional media outlets, including print, TV, and radio, which already adhere to stringent parameters, standard operating procedures (SOPs), checks, balances, and professional oversight to ensure factual and truthful news reporting, as well as fair and reality-grounded analysis and commentary, may not perceive a significant impact from this Act. Politicians, security agencies, courts, and civil and military bureaucracy, often targets of defamation, might view the Act favorably due to potential protection from unwarranted attacks on their reputation.

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