IHC directs PTA to provide opportunity of hearing before blocking online content

Islamabad High Court. Image courtesy: http://www.ihc.gov.pk/

Islamabad, 21 September 2019: The Islamabad High Court, in a decision on Saturday declared that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) does not have the power to block a website, without a written notice or provide opportunity to hear the other party. The Court in its decision found PTA’s actions to be in violation of various laws, most prominently mentioning 10-A of the constitution and section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. 

Article 10-A ensures that each person has the right to a fair trial, while section 37 defines the parameters under which PTA has the power to regulate online content. 

The decision of the IHC came on the basis of a writ petition filed earlier this year after the Awami Workers Party (AWP) website was blocked in July 2018, weeks before the general election. The judgement by Chief Justice Athar Minallah clearly states, “PTA is definitely not empowered to pass an order or take action under Section 37 in derogation of the mandatory requirements of due process.”

AWP’s website was unblocked during the course of the proceedings in 2019, however the order also makes note that the PTA has blocked over 84 thousand websites in a similar manner, amongst which are Voice of America’s Urdu and Pashto websites. Some of these websites were blocked after the Faizabad Dharna in November 2017, and were taken up in a petition by Asad Baig, who is the founder of Media Matters for Democracy, a non-profit working on digital and media rights in Pakistan. Baig’s petition was clubbed together with the AWP case. 

The court found the PTA in violation of Section 37 of PECA that gives PTA the power to block websites. The petitioners in their petitions called the application by PECA “erroneous” and against the intended purpose of the law that was envisioned by the legislature.

The court order notes that PTA has failed to “fulfill its statutory obligations by prescribing rules in the manner that has been provided under section 37(2)” of PECA and directs the Authority to fulfill these obligations, preferably within 90 days of receiving the order. 

Through this decision the court has also upheld the international principle that all rights that are safeguarded and protected offline, must also be protected online. 

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