New press laws in Pakistan look scary

IN Media Practice | 09/09/2002
Editorial in The Daily Times, Lahore, 4 September 2002



                       Editorial in  The Daily Times, Lahore, 4 September 2002

    New Press Laws In Pakistan Look Scary

The federal government has suddenly showered the country with ordinances relating to journalism in Pakistan without revealing the content of these laws. They could well be used to gag the press.

The federal government (of Pakistan) has suddenly showered the country with ordinances relating to journalism in Pakistan without revealing the content of these laws. One ordinance is on defamation on which the option of civil suit was already available, but under this law, the offending publisher and journalist could be fined or sent to jail. The second ordinance requires news agencies, newspapers and book publication to be registered. And the third ordinance sets up a Press Council with a broad representation, institutionally financed by the state.

It needs to be said at the very outset that these ordinances are not without reason and could well be used to gag the press. Defamation is tackled by the civil courts in Pakistan. That these courts may not be very effective is owed to factors that could be removed. For instance, there is delay in the courts because of the perennial overhang of civil litigation. The government could have easily resolved this by setting aside one court in all the big cities where libel litigation proliferates. The procedure for determining the proof of libel or defamation is universal, and journalists cannot be easily punished. All over the world, defamation in the press is handled with care so as not to restrict the ability of the press to investigate and report on persons and institutions in public life. In most cases, an apology is considered adequate punishment, considering that making a publication eat its own words is quite punitive in itself.

Why should the new statute be introduced in addition to the already existing law? The ordinance on defamation also enlists incidence of a variety of slander that could be punished. It borrows from an old Press Code put together in the early days of Pakistani journalism and targets one slander attacking "friendly countries" and "decency". Restriction has also been placed on what the publications can say about Islam. The idea of "friendly" country is absurd. It means that if a newspaper carries report about the violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia and China, their ambassadors can get the concerned journalist thrown in prison.

There has always been a problem about introducing vague terms in law, giving unlimited latitude to the interpreting judge. What is decent or not is very difficult to determine. Already, there is a lot of quarrel over "obscenity". There is a wide gap of comprehension between the conservative mind represented by the religious parties and the liberal reader. If the religious parties ever get to use the related ordinance, they would ban most entertainment pages in newspapers. And if the judge belongs to the former category (and one could give examples from real life), there will be much confusion and appellate litigation after the verdict.

Redundancy in the name of religion is still redundancy. The said ordinance also places vague restrictions on references made to Islam. Unless a further tightening is aimed at, the Penal Code already has a stiff remedy for those who insult Islam. Indeed, practice has revealed that these tough laws have to be rationalized to prevent wilful victimisation under the garb of piety. The bureaucrats who framed the ordinance have avoided the task they are unaccustomed to: originality. The judiciary has also been added, to which journalism henceforward will have to pay special regard. One fails to grasp what remedy is more effective against any disrespect of the

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