Peshawar High Court directs authorities to ban TikTok

The Peshawar High Court (PHC) on March 11 directed Pakistani authorities to ban popular video-sharing app TikTok over “immoral content.” The instructions were issued by PHC Chief Justice (CJ) Qaiser Rashid Khan, who was hearing a plea seeking a ban on Tiktok, and said the videos uploaded on the platform were “not acceptable for Pakistani society.” He added that the audience most impacted by TikTok was the youth.

PHC CJ said that the app was spreading obscenity and should be shut down immediately. According to some media reports, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Director General also said the government had approached TikTok officials over concerns for the immoral content but did not receive a “positive” response from them. However, in a statement by PTA, the regulator said that no such remark was made by its representative in the Court. In fact, the report submitted to the Court, which is part of the record, stated that TikTok is cooperating with PTA in regulating objectionable content.

The writ petition was filed by Asim Ullah and others in the Court on September 8, 2020, with the demand to ban the platform, make it inaccessible via VPN and prevent the relevant authorities from providing applications in the future that “effect moral values.”

“TikTok is a great mischief of modern times. It is destroying the youth. TikTok is forcing the youth to be selfish and go to any length to get times.” the petition alleged.

The petitioners further alleged that the app is being used to promote “nudity” and “same sex relationship(s),” while also being a source of harassment, blackmailing, narcissism and depression, among others. The petition also noted that the app was banned in Bangladesh and Malaysia for its “pornography and inappropriate content.”

The petition claimed the usage of TikTok is violative of constitutional provision under Articles 2, 2-A, 19, 20, 31, 37 and 38. It also said that the constitutionally provided right to freedom of expression under Article 19 is subject to morality and decency.

Previous ban on the platform

This is the second time Tik Tok has faced a ban in Pakistan. PTA banned the app in the country on October 9, 2020 on the grounds that it promoted “unethical content.” This led to heavy criticism on social media and mainstream media by activists, users and human rights organizations who said the ban was a violation of citizens’ fundamental human rights. However, the ban was lifted after just 10 days by PTA, which said the app had assured the agency that videos will be moderated in accordance with local laws.

Likewise, in July 2020, PTA banned gaming app PUBG citing its effects on the youth, as well as live streaming application Bigo Live for spreading “immoral and indecent content.” However, the regulator later decided to lift the bans on both platforms after meeting with representatives of both the companies.

In January this year, The Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) directed PTA to provide minutes of a meeting and the file notes related to the previous TikTok ban. Information Commissioner Zahid Abdullah passed the order based on a complaint filed by Nadeem Umer, who sought information related to the ban. The PIC instructed PTA to provide the information and minutes of the meeting to the applicant within 10 working days.

The order required the PTA to provide appellant Nadeem Umer information about the total number of complaints received against TikTok, as well as the province and district-wise break-up.

Social media rules challenged in court

The most recent ban comes after criticism levied against the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020, which allow the PTA to obtain or remove online content on various arbitrary grounds. In February 2021, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) asked the Attorney General of Pakistan (AG) to submit a report on the Rules, after holding consultations with a limited number of stakeholders on February 19, 2021.

The IHC granted an extension of one month to update the Court in the next hearing set for April 2. The AG is representing the Federal Government in a number of cases filed against the Rules, along with cases of blocking of different web applications. The Court said that decisions in these cases will be given after the AG submits the report.

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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