A Bad Look

Despite presenting itself as the party of conciliation, compromise, and democratic process, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) first significant act of legislation harkens to unilateral majoritarianism reminiscent of far more autocratic regimes of the past.

The Punjab Assembly on Monday passed the Defamation Bill, 2024, rejecting each amendment proposed by the opposition amid protests by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) backed Sunni Ittehad Council and journalists assigned to cover parliamentary proceedings. The apparent haste in passing the bill, hurried through a Special Committee – sans the Opposition – in the absence of standard parliamentary committees, makes the government’s intention suspect, even if the bill was designed to safeguard citizens against online defamation.

Similarly, requests by journalists to delay the vote by a week, to properly let various stakeholders examine the provisions and suggest amendments were also denied, without any stated reason. Journalists, who break stories critical of the government and expose wrongdoing - often at the expense of their own safety – will bear the brunt of this law. Threatening journalists with the new law, with its expedited special tribunals and expanded punishments now serve as an easy way to silence critical stories. If the law was so essential to the fabric of the federation, it would have survived parliamentary debate as well. It is true that under the incumbent system, defamation cases often stagnate after court notices and the proposed bill promised swift resolutions, designating high court judges as tribunal heads to expedite proceedings. Why was this logic not explained to the parliament? What are the deficiencies of the existing defamation law?

Giving speeches on harmony and conciliation aimed at political opponents does not make a party conciliatory, instead implementing those ideals in the government process is what matters. This is what the last government was accused of; despite promising no political victimization, it carried out victimization, and despite promising compromise, it too tried to push legislation through.

This is a bad look for a government that wanted to reset the political dynamic and usher in a new era of democratic dialogue. As things stand, PML-N is no different from PTI when it comes to legislative strategy.

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