ISLAMABAD – The Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) Monday apprised the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that the government would review the social media regulations that were introduced last year.
The AGP Khalid Jawed Khan stated this before a single bench of IHC, comprising Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court Justice Athar Minallah, which was conducting hearing of the petition filed by Journalists Defense Committee of Pakistan Bar Council on behalf of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) challenging the social media rules of the PTA. During the hearing, Khalid Javed Khan informed the IHC bench that the government would consult with the petitioners and all the stakeholders when it reviews the regulations. He informed the court that the regulatory rules have not been finalised yet and the government could make amendments in the social media rules after consultations with the stakeholders. Justice Athar observed that Article-19 (Freedom of Speech) and Article-19A (Right to Information) of the Constitution are related to fundamental rights. He added that it seems that the stakeholders were not consulted in formulating the social media rules.
At this, the AGP told the court that the petitioners would be consulted and shutting down a social platform was not the right solution. He requested the court to grant the government some time so that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and relevant stakeholders could review the rules together.
Justice Athar said that it was a “very positive” response from the AGP. He added that “consultation is necessary” and that it was “very appropriate” to review the regulations. He urged the petitioners to show confidence in the government officials and to “expect good things” from it.
However, petitioner Usama Khawar told the court that they were invited earlier for consultations but none of their recommendations were taken into account.
Then, the IHC Chief Justice said that the court had appointed a judicial assistant to provide his input in the case. He further said that the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) were important stakeholders when it came to social media regulations.
Later, the IHC bench deferred the hearing in this matter till February 26 for further proceedings.
In this matter, the PFUJ urged the court to strike down the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020, saying that the rules are unconstitutional. The PTA has made these rules and the IT ministry announced them on November 19. The PTA has the power to do this under Sub-section (2) of Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, which talks about “unlawful online content.” The rules came into force immediately.
The petition said that the rules should be struck down with immediate effect as the same violate fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The petition mentioned clauses that allow the PTA to block content online that is against the “glory of Islam,” interest, security and defense of Pakistan,” etc.
Article 19 already lists down what constitutes glory of Islam and national security, the petition said and added that the Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the law, not the PTA.
The petition said that the rules also contradict its parent act, PECA and these rules would destroy digital economy, internet user numbers, and have a negative impact on businesses. Therefore, the petitioner requested the court to declare that the said rules are ultra vires in the light of PECA 2016, and inconsistent with and in contravention of Article 4 of the Constitution as well as the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 9, 10A, 14, 18, 19 and 19A of the Constitution.