Islamabad, 27 September 2017: Islamabad High Court has reserved verdict on the petitions praying to ‘restrain’ the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority from suspending cellular services in the name of security.
Justice Athar Minallah of Islamabad High Court has reserved judgment in four petitions praying the Honourable Court to issue orders to restrain the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority from suspending cellular and internet services in the name of security “under all circumstances”.
The petitioners also prayed for restraining the suspicion of services till the “pendency of the petition”, which wasn’t granted.
The cellular services including mobile internet are often suspended on special orders from the federal government, implemented by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority ahead of landmark events and religious and political processions to ‘avert possible law and order situations’.
The petitions were filed in April 2016 by citizens who felt aggrieved by the suspension of cellular services and were rendered unable to communicate their loved ones, use emergency services or go about their regular lives. Petitioners, through their council Umer Gilani, had contended that the suspension of cellular services was a breach of their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan.
The petitions argue that the suspension of cellular services are illegal under the Telecommunication Act 1996 and doesn’t empower the government to suspend telecommunication services unless there is an order of proclamation of emergency from the President of Pakistan.
Justice Minahllah after hearing the final arguments of both parties reserved the verdict and directed them to submit written arguments by 20th of October.
Speaking to Media Matters for Democracy, Umer Gilani, the petitioners’ counsel said, “there are 70 million users of mobile services in and 10 million or more use banking services online. Telecommunication services are like water and air; it’s a fundamental right and everybody needs it”. On the legality of the suspension of cellular services, he said: “suspensions are in complete violation of the law”.
On the other hand, the federal government maintained that the suspensions of cellular services to avoid law and order situations are completely in line with the Telecommunication Act 1996 and the government is empowered to do so under Section 54 sub-section II of the Telecom Act.
Sub-section II of Section 54 of Telecom Act reads:
During a war or hostilities against Pakistan by any foreign power or internal aggression or for the defence or security of Pakistan, the Federal Government shall have preference and priority in telecommunication system over any licensee.
Gilani countered the arguments saying that there is only one way for the government to lawfully suspend cellular services and that is through Section 54 sub-section 3, which requires the President of Pakistan to declare the state of emergency.
Asad Baig is an Islamabad-based journalist. He is the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan’s leading media development organisation. He’s also the CEO of the Media Lab, country’s first and only incubator and accelerator for digital media startups. He tweets at @asadbeyg.