By Syed Saad
Islamabad High Court (IHC) through an order has directed Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to nominate an officer to explain why left-leaning Awami Workers Party (AWP)’s website was blocked. In the hearing, PTA was snubbed by the court for failing to disclose on what basis the website was banned.
Last year in July, with the elections just around the corner, the website of AWP was blocked in Pakistan.
Lawyer Haider Imtiaz, who is representing AWP in the case, told Naya Daur that the party was initially under the impression that its website was down due to technical reasons or hacking. “But we were later informed by Digital Rights Foundation and Netblocks, an NGO that monitors cybersecurity, that it was in all probability blocked by the government,” he said.
According to the lawyer, the party wrote to PTA about this and to date has received no response from the authority. Meanwhile, the party had gotten in touch with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), urging it to play its part in the provision of ‘a level playing field’ before the elections. The ban was lifted for a few weeks, but later imposed again.
In February this year, the AWP filed a writ petition in which they challenged the ‘apparent action of PTA’, as no written order from the organisation had been received. In the petition, AWP’s lawyer had argued that the banning of PTA’s website was in violation of Article 10A (the right to fair trail and due process), and Section 24A of the General Clauses Act 1897. The latter provides that a government body, which has been authorized to exercise certain powers under a law, must exercise those powers reasonably, fairly and justly and must provide reasons for its decisions.
The party had argued that under Section 37 of PECA, there exists a proper mechanism for removal of online content, which involves the authority giving the ‘accused’ a fair chance to defend themself before the action is taken. This mechanism, AWP’s lawyer had argued, was not followed.
No proof of hate speech was found:
In the subsequent hearings, the PTA admitted in court that they had blocked the website. Upon being questioned by the court on the sufficient grounds for removal, PTA’s lawyer could neither provide the complaint on the basis of which AWP’s website was blocked, nor any evidence of alleged hate speech. Moreover, he could not produce any prior show cause notice or a written order containing reasons of removal.
In a tweet about the recent hearing on August 28, Haider Imtiaz said, “PTA has admitted that it blocked the website upon complaint of a govt agency, however, no prior notice was issued to AWP, nor any speaking order was passed.”
PTA’s Double Standards
The PTA has a history of imposing bans on progressive websites, while no action is taken against accounts promoting hate speech and violence. This double standard was particularly witnessed during Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP)’s protests in November 2018, when accounts associated with the group freely promoted violence against the state.
Imtiaz further told Naya Daur that PTA has a Cyber Vigilance Department which has the responsibility of controlling online content in response to public complaints. The CVD can be approached by citizens when they find problematic content online. Moreover, around 50 government organisations and security agencies have access to CVD, and send reports to the department regarding websites they want banned.
The lawyer was of the view that considering that 800,000 websites have been banned through this mechanism, with the majority of those banned not being informed through a written order and not being given a fair chance to defend themselves, it seems that the PTA has abdicated its authority to these government organisations and agencies. He added that apparently, PTA was listening to their complaints without giving due process to citizens.
Regarding the outcome of the case, the lawyer said that whatever the outcome, it was hoped that the court would bind PTA to respect the fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed under Article 9 (pertaining to life and liberty), Article 10A, and Article 19 (the right to freedom of speech) of the constitution of Pakistan.
He argued authorities must disclose reasons for banning online content and arbitrary restrictions cannot be imposed. “Nobody can be condemned unheard,” he concluded.
Considering the proceedings of the case, the PTA is engaging in actions that can be deemed as undemocratic. No matter what the case is, the authority has to give reasonable grounds to the ‘accused’ and give them a fair chance to defend themselves. Such actions by PTA are a gross violation of the fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution and PECA 2016.