Islamabad High Court allows government to suspend mobile phone services, grants ‘interim’ stay till May

ISLAMABAD: Islamabad High Court has granted an interim stay against its decision earlier that declared mobile phone service suspension illegal, Express Tribune reported.

As per detail, the stay was granted after Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA, and Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom, MOITT, filed an intra court appeal with the IHC divisional bench headed by Justice Ammar Farooq and Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kiani on March 17, 2018.

As a result, reports of cellular suspensions in parts of Rawalpindi and Islamabad is being received by Digital Rights Monitor. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the mobile phone service have been blocked within 10 Kilometer radius of Parade Ground, where the March 23 Pakistan Day parade is going to take place.

Earlier on February 26, 2018, Islamabad High Court’s single bench headed by Justice Athar Minullah declared cellular network shutdown illegal. The decision was given in response to petitions filed in 2016 by four residents against government’s cellular network shutdowns. The petitioners had taken the plea that on and off suspension of mobile phone service was a violation of their fundamental rights.

However less than a week before upcoming March 23 parade, PTA and MOITT filed an appeal before the appellate bench on March 17, 2018 against the aforementioned decision. The bench headed by Justice Ammar Farooq and Justie Mohsin Akhtar Kiani conducted preliminary hearings on March 19-20, 2018.

After hearing the arguments of the government counsels, the bench reserved its verdict. Late at night, Express Tribune reported: “….the bench suspended the single bench’s order till the first week of May. Calling the suspension order ‘interim’, the bench said it would be vacated in the first week of May unless the court issued directives in this regard.”

DRM reported earlier: 

It is important to note that notices were also issued to petitioners on Monday to appear before the bench but they could not do so in a short span of time.

It is not clear when decision of the bench will be announced. However, according one legal expert who is aware of the court proceedings, the government is likely to get a stay against the IHC decision earlier on cellular network shutdowns. This might allow government to suspend cellular networks on March 23 this year. “In such cases, generally, the bench grants stay against the original decision. It is quite likely the court will admit this for a larger bench hearing in coming weeks. In the meanwhile, the order of single bench (of Justice Athar Minullah) will be suspended,” remarked the expert.

It has been learned that during the hearing, the bench grilled lawyers representing the government and questioned why they filed their appeal a few days before March 23 parade. The bench also asked why their appeal should be admitted when section 54 (3) of PTA act was clear about process to be followed  and said that cellular networks could only be shutdown when there was proclamation of emergency. According to a legal expert, it was quite unusual for the court to grill government lawyers and ask critical questions in preliminary hearing.

In its decision earlier,  justice Minullah noted that the government’s exercise of powers under section 54 (3) of Pakistan Telecommunication Act, to suspend mobile networks under the pretext of law and order and national security was in contradiction with the constitution. He noted that section 54(3) allowed government to shut down cellular services in emergency situation, which had happened only twice or thrice in Pakistan. “To impose emergency, the procedure had been laid down in the constitution and government simply cannot use section 54 (3) to suspend networks,” shared Umer Gillani, who was representing petitioners in the said case.



Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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