SHC tells interior ministry to withdraw letter for ban on X

our correspondents
Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

KARACHI/ ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR: The Sindh High Court on Wednesday directed the federal ministry of interior to withdraw its letter which it had sent to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for imposing a ban on social media platform X as prima facie there was no justification for such a prolonged restriction.

During a hearing of a petition against the suspension of the internet and cellular phone services on the day of the general elections on February 8 and well as against the ban on access to social media site X, formerly Twitter, a division bench, headed by Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi, observed that the court will pass an appropriate order if letter regarding the imposition of the ban is not withdrawn.

The petitioners’ counsel Abdul Moiz Jaffery and Jibran Nasir submitted that the PTA and the ministry of interior did not explain reasons for such a prolonged ban on social media platform X. They said that the PTA had admitted that X had been banned on directions from the federal ministry of interior since February 17.

The court observed that prima facie there seems no reasons for the ban on X. It inquired the federal law officer why only social media platform X was banned though government officials know the ground realities and national interest.

The high court further observed that the ministry of interior should either withdraw the letter regarding the imposition of the ban on X or justify the prolonged ban under the law as there was no specific law that allows the ministry of interior to act on reports of intelligence agencies. The court said that some persons think whatever they are doing is right. It wondered what can be achieved by banning the social media platform when the entire world would laugh at such actions.

The federal law officer sought time to seek instructions from the federal government. The court directed the federal government to either withdraw the letter for the ban on X or justify the reasons for such a prolonged ban under the law. It also directed the federal law officer to submit the response and adjourned the hearing till May 9.

The PTA had earlier told the court that X was blocked in the country on direction of the federal ministry of interior on the basis of reports it had received from intelligence agencies.

The PTA had submitted that no action of the authority was in contravention of Article 19-A of the Constitution, as it was in accordance with the relevant laws. It said that the suspension of mobile cellular services for public safety reasons or in public emergency or for security reasons was a policy matter and ought not to be interfered with by the court.

The authority said the legislature mandated the federal government to issue policy directives on national security, internal aggression, defence or security in accordance with exigency and need of time.

The interior ministry stated that it had received reports from intelligence agencies and therefore on February 17 the PTA was asked to block social media platform X till further orders under Section 5 (7) (ii) of the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021.

It also said that all action on part of the respondents were taken within the applicable legal framework.

The SHC had earlier directed the PTA to ensure that there was no further shutting down, disruption or slowing down of internet service unless there were valid or cogent reasons, which should be intimated to the court on the next date of hearing.

The high court had made it clear that if no valid reasons were provided for continued suspension, disruption or slowing down of the internet service, adverse inference may be drawn against the authorities concerned. The SHC had also directed the PTA to restore X “if there was no lawful justification or reasonable grounds to deny the internet access to X”.

Also on Wednesday, on a plea against the ban on X filed with the Islamabad High Court, the ministry of interior submitted that the decision to ban X was taken based on several reports of intelligence agencies for national security, maintenance of law and order and protection of national integrity.

It said the anti-national elements have the evil intentions of creating chaos to destabilize the country by misusing social media platforms like X to undermine law and order by uploading content inciting violence.

The ministry said banning X is a necessary measure to prevent these elements from achieving their destructive goals. The closure of X is not intended to curtail freedom of expression or access to information or contravene Article 19 of the Constitution.

The ministry submitted a written report to the IHC, stating that X is not registered in Pakistan and is not a party to the agreement to abide by Pakistani laws. Pakistan’s government orders were not obeyed, which necessitated its ban, it said.

The non-cooperation of X authorities justified regulatory measures against X, including temporary closure, as the government had no other option, said the interior ministry.

The FIA cybercrime wing requested X to ban accounts propagating against the chief justice, but X officials ignored the request and did not even respond. Social media platforms are being used indiscriminately for spreading extremist ideas and false information, and X was being used as a tool by some evil elements to damage law and order and promote instability. The ban on X is aimed at the responsible use of social media platforms in accordance with the law, said the interior ministry.

The interior ministry said it is the protector of the citizens of Pakistan and responsible for national stability. Earlier, the social media platform TikTok was also banned by the government, but the ban was lifted after TikTok signed an agreement to abide by the Pakistani law.

Due to security reasons, social media platforms are banned by various countries around the world. On the request of intelligence agencies, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued orders for the closure of X on February 17, 2024. The application against the closure of X is against the law and facts, is not admissible, and should be dismissed, it argued.

The Peshawar High Court (PHC) again issued notices to the relevant officials against the suspension of X.

A two-member bench comprising Justice SM Attique Shah and Justice Syed Arshad Ali heard the petitions.

Nauman Mohib Kakakhel representing the petitioners told the bench that the federal government had suspended X without any reason. He said that X was a social media platform, which was also used for advertising purposes to promote business and startups. He said that many youngsters in Pakistan were using X for sharing information and the platform was also being used to spread education besides providing jobs to the youth.

Presenting his arguments in the case, Kakakhel said that Pakistan was a developing country and needed the use of information technology. However, he said that the government had placed a ban on the use of X, which had deprived its users of accessing their accounts. He requested the court to declare the ban illegal and unconstitutional.

X said in a post that it continues to work with Pakistan’s government to understand its concerns.