Islamabad, 19 December 2017: Advocate Umer Gilani of ‘The Law and Policy Chambers’, acting on behalf of Media Matters for Democracy’s Director Asad Baig, has legally challenged the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s move to shut down Twitter, Facebook for 30 hours on 25th November.
In an unprecedented move on 25th November, amid the violent protests on Faizabad Interchange, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority suspended access to major social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, apparently to ‘avert potential law and order situations’ as reported by the media. This was the first time in Pakistan that access to both Twitter and Facebook, the two most popular social media platforms, was completely suspended for nearly 30 hours on the pretext of maintaining order.
The suspension came at a time when information access was most crucial especially for the citizens of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
It’s important to note here that thousands, if not millions, travel to and from work between Rawalpindi and Islamabad on a daily basis. The suspension of social media services created an environment of chaos and aided the proliferation of rumours and fake news, thus adding fuel to fire.
The laws, under which this indiscriminate suspension of services was ordered are still unclear. Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act through its Section 37 (1) empowers PTA to remove specific ‘pieces of information’ from information systems [in this case the social media networks] but does not allow the Authority, per se, to block access to social media platforms. It states:
“The Authority shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or a.ny part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act”.
Its also important to note here that in all the previous instances of blocking access to social media platforms, including the blocking of YouTube in 2012 that lasted for over 3 years, most orders of suspension were issued by the Courts. The suspension of 25th November, however, was seemingly ordered by the Executive.
Media Matters for Democracy to further inquire into this matter put in a Right to Information request on 4 December, requesting a copy of the “notification letter received by PTA from the government for the suspension of social media including Facebook and Twitter on 25 Nov 2017 in the midst of recent Faizabad Dharna”.
No response from PTA was received till the time of filing this report.
MMfD through its attorney Advocate Umer Gilani has served Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PT with a legal notice, noting that sweeping suspension of social media platforms was both unnecessary and unproportionate, and ultra vires the mandate of Section 37. The notice calls upon PTA to tender a public apology for violating fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan within 7 days, the failure of which will compel a lawsuit against the Authority.
MMfD’s director Asad Baig said that it is imperative to push back on this act of censorship. If it goes unchecked, it’ll become a precedent and with that a practice, he said. “I remember the first time GSM services were suspended in Pakistan. People were shocked the first time it happened. Now it has become a regular practice. We see arbitrary network suspensions every now and then all across Pakistan. This was the first time social media platforms were blocked along with the GSM networks. If we let it slide now, we fear it’ll also become a practice”.
Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.