The Attorney General of Pakistan Khalid Jawed Khan has recommended to Prime Minister Imran Khan that further and broad-based consultations are required for the framing of comprehensive rules that govern the regulation of social media under the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020, or the Social Media Rules. The statement issued by the AG’s Office comes after consultations undertaken by the AG with petitioners who filed petitions in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and some other parties who expressed interest in the Rules.
The statement further said the Rules should protect the constitutionally provided rights of freedom of speech and right to information under Articles 19 and 19-A while “ensuring that social media platforms are not abused and material is not disseminated in violation of laws.”
The rules for online content regulation, which were framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, are facing a legal challenge in the IHC through petitions filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), journalist Amber Shamsi, and journalist Tanzeela Mazhar.
The PM vide PM’s Office Directive No.579/SPM/2021 dated March 29 established the following committee:
Dr. Shireen M. Mazari, Federal Minister for Human Rights, as Chairperson
Maleeka Ali Bukhari, Parliamentary Secretary on Law and Justice, as Member
Senator Syed Ali Zafar, as Member
Secretary, MoITT, as Member
Chairman, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, as Secretary/Member
The IT and Telecommunication division will function as the Secretariat of the committee, which will submit its report including recommendations in the matter to the PM within a 30-day period. The committee will begin its work and the Secretariat will inform the public of the date and venue for consultations with all the stakeholders, including the petitioners who filed cases in the IHC.
The court-ordered consultation
The AG in January told the court that the government was ready to review the Rules, after which the IHC directed the federal government to present a report on the Rules to the court in a hearing scheduled on February 26 after consulting with stakeholders.
The AG, in the meeting held on February 19, said he will present his recommendations to the federal government for revising the controversial Social Media Rules, after admitting that the rules contained significant flaws and should be revised through more discussions with a broad group of stakeholders. During his meetings with the petitioners, the AG was accompanied by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Chairman Amir Azeem Bajwa, and the Federal Secretary for the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui.
The consultative meeting was attended by the PFUJ Secretary General Nasir Zaidi and lawyers Haider Imtiaz, Sikandar Naeem Qazi, and Aftab Alam representing the PFUJ; the President of the Supreme Court Press Association Abdul Qayyum Siddiqui and other Supreme Court news reporters, including Matiullah Jan; lawyer Saad Amir representing journalist Tanzeela Mazhar, and representatives of Media Matters for Democracy, among others.
The AG said it would have been better if the stakeholders had been consulted before the Rules were formulated, but that there was still an opportunity to refine the Rules through consultation.
Social Media Rules face heavy criticism
During the meeting, PTA faced criticism for the amount of power the Rules enable the regulator to practice, and participants questioned what mechanisms were being used by PTA to arrive at its content decisions since the existing Rules do not specify them. The language of the rules should be changed to compel PTA to issue prior notices, conduct hearings, and pass reasoned orders in writing in connection with content removal decisions, the participants said. The AG asked the PTA Chairman to note down these points.
The journalists at the meeting pointed out that Section 5 of the Rules allowed government departments and intelligence agencies to anonymously file complaints for the removal and blocking of online content, making journalists and human rights defenders vulnerable to their misuse. The lawyers further argued that the language of the relevant section, which violates the right to fair trial, should be rectified to at least inform the accused about the identity of the complainant.
The lawyers also voiced concern about the scope of Section 37 of PECA, under whose subsection (2) the Rules were framed. But the AG said that the Parliament would be the appropriate forum for a discussion on Section 37, since a discussion on Section 37 was not within the mandate given to him by the high court.