Islamabad High Court calls banning of online content abuse of power; orders response in the next hearing

November 10, 2021 – In a hearing regarding Social Media Rules, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) posed legal questions to the Attorney General of Pakistan and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) regarding the amendments to the Social Media Rules and TikTok ban in the country. The Court asked the PTA to state which section of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) gives it the power to block social media platforms, while the Attorney General was asked whether the social media rules were meaningfully consulted with stakeholders.

During the hearing, senior journalist Hamid Mir was also present in the courtroom who told the Court that the Human Rights Ministry was informed by the stakeholders that the Rules are draconian during the consultations that the ministry hosted. The stakeholders made recommendations to the Ministry which were agreed upon by the Federal Minister of Human Rights, Shireen Mazari. Mir informed the Court that social media experts were put before the government and the Attorney General but their voices were not heard.

Justice Athar Minallah remarked that the Court should summon these social media experts to share their expertise with the Court. Hamid Mir recommended Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, as the judicial adviser to the Court.

During the hearing, the Chief Justice remarked that while there should be no child pornography or hate speech on the internet but criticism of the public office holders and departments can exist. The Attorney-General assured the Court that all stakeholders would be consulted on social media rules. Whereas, the Additional Attorney General said that new social media rules have been drafted and notified. The court said that they want to know what is happening in the rest of the world.

During the hearing, Chief Justice Athar Minallah also remarked that news about a trend against judiciary has been doing rounds in the newspapers, but what difference does it make? The Court asked whether the authorities would block every social media platform wherever the anti-judiciary trend starts? The Honourable judge asked the respondents what objections were raised on social media rules and how the authorities addressed those concerns? Furthermore, he also asked the representative of PTA which section of PECA gives it the authority to block the entire website or application. He said that the apps are an entertainment for the masses, so how are the authorities blocking the entire platform based on a complaint regarding objectionable content? He further questioned how PTA is determining what is objectionable on its own instead of setting up a forum that determines whether something is objectionable or not. Justice Minallah remarked how 1 percent objectionable content can lead to banning of the rest of the 99 percent content. He called this arbitrary ban of content an abuse of power granted to PTA, and ordered a detailed response in the next hearing on November 22.

The Court is adjourned until the next hearing.


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