ISLAMABAD, FEBRUARY 18: Awami Workers Party, AWP, has filed a petition in Islamabad High Court, IHC, against censorship of its website by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA.
AWP website is blocked since June 03, 2018 under unexplained circumstances. According to AWP, they immediately reached out to PTA to ascertain more facts surrounding the censorship, but did not receive any response. However, after their own technical assessment and confirmation from one of the internet service providers, they found out that the website was inaccessible under the government orders.
As the party did not get any relief despite the lapse of many months, they eventually filed a petition through advocate Umer Gillani and Haider Imtiaz with IHC Chief Justice Athar Minullah.
While admitting the petition here on Monday, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minullah directed Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to submit a written reply within two weeks.
Talking to Digital Rights Monitor, Advocate Umer Gilani stated: “The Islamabad High Court’s decision to hear this case on an urgent basis reassures us that it takes digital rights seriously. We hope to vigorously contest our case on merits over the next hearing.”
It is to be noted that under Section 37 of the 2016 Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, PECA, PTA is empowered to take down online content. According to PTA’s annual report 2018, it has blocked 824, 878 websites within Pakistan.
Contents of the petition:
The petition argued that website was blocked without any prior intimation by PTA. It noted that despite reaching out to PTA, it did not inform the political party about the reason for blocking the website. The petition noted: “This erroneous application of Section 37 of PECA is clearly against what was intended by the legislature and is in violation of the fundamental rights of citizens.”
It also noted that contrary to PECA’s section 37(2), PTA had not framed the rules for exercising its powers to block content online and in this way “depriving citizens of the safeguards, transparent process and effective oversight mechanism intended to be provided to them by the legislature.”
Furthermore, it was noted that section 37 (4) and 37 (5) allowed the aggrieved party to appeal to PTA within thirty days of the blocking of content and subsequently to High Court within thirty days of PTA’s decision against the appeal. However, by not providing written order with elaborate reasons for blocking the website, PTA made the aforementioned provisions redundant.
Noting that the aforementioned practice violated Pakistan’s constitution, the petitioner stated that the “material on the website is entirely political in nature, falling within the bounds of, and protected by, the Constitution of Pakistan under Articles 17 and 19.” Thus, it prayed to court to order PTA to unblock AWP’s website, frame rules under Section 37(2), provide with “reasoned” orders while blocking content and develop a framework for filing, hearing and decision of review applications under 37(4).
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.