The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) is concerned with the passing of recent legislation in the Punjab Assembly regarding powers of arrest granted to the assembly. While the bill extends these arrests to “any person”, the new law’s schedule includes criteria that would specifically target the media.
On June 29, the provincial assembly passed the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Act, 2021, tabled by Pakistan People’s Party MPA Usman Mehmood as a private members’ bill. The bill is an amendment to the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab Privileges Act, 1972 to “define the powers, immunities and privileges of the provincial assembly, its committees and its members”.
The bill, which was passed by a majority of the assembly, was reportedly not on the agenda, nor had it been sent to the relevant committees to be examined. Furthermore, the bill was passed without being circulated amongst the press gallery.
The bill includes Section 10A “power to arrest” that reads:
The Sergeant-at-Arms or any other Officer authorized by the Speaker in this regard may if satisfied that with a view to preventing any person from acting in any manner prejudicial to breach of any of the privileges specified in the Schedule, it is necessary so to do, may, by an order in writing, direct the arrest and detention in such custody as may be prescribed under the rules.
The Schedule includes “willfully publishing any false or perverted report of any debate or proceedings of the Assembly or any Committee or willfully misrepresenting any speech made by a Member before the Assembly or any Committee”.
The maximum punishment for this is defined as “imprisonment of either description for three months” or fine of ten thousand rupees or both.
PPF is concerned by the inclusion of this specific section in the Schedule as it can be used to wrongfully arrest journalists. While the Schedule states the arrests can be against anyone publishing a “false or perverted report” of a debate of assembly proceedings or “willfully misrepresenting” any speech by assembly members, it doesn’t define what can be classified as false or perverted reporting or misrepresentation. Such a clause puts journalists in a vulnerable position and opens the prospect of misuse of the law to arrest media personnel, if a member of the assembly is not happy with coverage.
The bill provides legal cover for the arrests of journalists covering the assembly. Section 11F of the law enables the judicial committee to make arrests without warrants. PPF believes that this can subject journalists to misuse of power by members of the assembly or authorities if they are displeased with certain coverage.
The legal system of Pakistan provides ample avenues to use in the case of misrepresentation or defamation. Enabling arrests without warrants can enable misuse of the law and unfair arrests of the media.
The bill has been rejected by the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).
In their statement, APNS President Sarmad Ali and Secretary General Nazafreen Saigol Lakhani said the bill provides a “judicial committee of the house with dictatorial powers to order arrest without warrant of a journalist and award sentence of six months with fine of Rs10,000 without adopting the legal procedure if the committee is of the opinion that any privilege of a member is violated”. The statement called on the provincial legislators and government to “withdraw the anti-press bill without any delay”.
In their statement, PFUJ President Shahzada Zulfiqar and Secretary General Nasir Zaidi said this law is proof that some political forces were against freedom of the press and free speech and against transparency and accountability.