Police officers are seen in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 20, 2021. The Punjab Provincial Assembly recently passed a bill targeting journalists. (AP/K.M. Chaudary)

Pakistan’s Punjab Provincial Assembly passes bill targeting journalists

Washington, D.C., July 9, 2021 — Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar and Assembly Speaker Pervaiz Elahi should amend proposed legislation that threatens press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 29, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Act, 2021, a bill that empowers the speaker to form a judicial committee with the ability to penalize journalists over their coverage of the legislative body, according to news reports. The bill will be enacted if Sarwar signs it into law, those reports said.

If enacted, that judicial committee would have the power to conduct summary trials and sentence journalists to up to six months in jail and fine them up to 10,000 rupees (US $63) on the basis of a complaint by any assembly member, those reports said.

“The Punjab Provincial Assembly’s move to authorize summary trials and sentencing for journalists amounts to a direct assault on press freedom in Pakistan and a threat to any journalist covering the assembly,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar must reject the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Act unless all provisions threatening freedom of expression are removed.”

CPJ was not able to obtain the text of the bill, which has not been published on the provincial assembly’s website.

The bill empowers the assembly’s sergeant-at-arms to arrest journalists within the assembly without a warrant on the order of the speaker, and includes three-month prison terms for “publishing any false or perverted report of any debate or proceedings,” “misrepresenting any speech made by a member before the Assembly,” or “making or publishing any maliciously false, scandalous, defamatory, or derogatory statement concerning any Member,” according to those reports.

Journalists could be sentenced to six months in prison and a fine if convicted of “using criminal force to obstruct, assault, threaten, or insult” any assembly member or officer, those reports said.

Defendants in those cases would be able to appeal their verdicts, but only to the speaker of the assembly, according to those reports.

In response to journalist protests against the proposed bill on July 2, Sarwar announced that he would work with Elahi to revoke all of its press-related provisions, according to The Nation. On July 5, Elahi announced a number of revisions to the bill, according to news reports.

However, in a joint statement published that day, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Lahore-based Joint Action Committee, a coalition of civil society groups, rejected those revisions and demanded that Section 21 of the bill be totally abolished, as it empowers the speaker to reintroduce the revised and omitted clauses at any time.

CPJ emailed Sarwar and Elahi’s offices for comment, but did not receive any replies.

In June, CPJ wrote to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan urging him to halt the government’s efforts to establish the Pakistan Media Development Authority, an umbrella regulatory body that would further endanger press freedom.