PTA temporarily bans PUBG; opens decision for public feedback

Islamabad, July 2, 2020 – The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), on July 1, placed a temporary ban on popular mobile video game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). Through a notice issued on their website and official social media accounts, the Authority stated that the game was “addictive, wastage of time and poses serious negative impact on physical and psychological health of the children”. PTA’s decision came after it was directed by the Lahore High Court (LHC) in a hearing dated 25th May, 2020, to determine whether the game was appropriate for the public. 

The petitioner, who approached the Lahore High Court, built his case around the argument that PUBG was causing significant mental harm to its largely young players due to its “violent” nature. The petition argued that children would get addicted to the game, playing it for long periods of time, which essentially affected their performance in social circles and school activities. It also referred to the game as a “social evil”, and a strategy to de-track youth of Pakistan from making progress professionally and academically.

In addition to the ongoing petition, Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Lahore, Zulfiqar Hameed recommended a ban on PUBG last month after a teenager committed suicide when he failed a task assigned to him during the game.

The game, that was released in 2016, has captivated millions of players around the world, and many are under the age of 18. The news of the blockage was met with shock and anger by the young players, who claim that there are much more violent games in the market that are being played on more expensive consoles like the Xbox and Playstation.

Since PUBG could be played easily on ordinary smartphones, it reached a wider number of users across different classes of the society. Many young people built their careers through the game in the last few years by participating in gaming tournaments held both nationally and internationally, earning a significant amount of money. 

While video games were traditionally perceived as a form of entertainment, they have now raised important questions about being a source of expression. In 2011, a Californian Court ruled that video games qualified as free speech, setting up an important persuasive precedent for the rest of the world to follow. A number of activists have also argued that video games must be given protection under the freedom of expression laws. 

In this instance, the Lahore High Court was not able to take into account the free expression argument. The restrictions that are to be placed on any digital content that is consumed by the general public must fall under the “reasonable restrictions” laid down by Article 19: Freedom of Speech, etc. of the Constitution of Pakistan. The proceedings of the case do not indicate if reasonable restrictions were discussed by the Court while reaching its decision. 

Moreover, the role of PTA is also uncertain in this scenario. The PTA does possess the power to regulate online content under Section 37: Unlawful Content of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, but it does not explicitly mention video games.

Asad Baig, Director and Co-Founder of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “If it is assumed that the power to decide PUBG’s fate is being derived from Section 37, it raises the question of whether PTA has the authority to determine what constitutes a “reasonable restriction” under Article 19 or not.” 

He adds, “Essentially, it is the Parliament that must decide what the ambit of these restrictions are. The PTA continues to overstep its authority by and with the absence of the Rules mandated under Section 37, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand the scope of PTA’s powers. There is also no transparency as to how PTA reaches its decision when banning certain content, as evident from the PUBG decision. Instead of providing a reasoned order and explanation, an arbitrary action has taken place through a notice uploaded on their website.”

The notice by PTA has also welcomed input from the general public regarding the ban which creates confusion and raises further concerns about the decision-making processes inside the body. 

Asad is of the view that unless the Courts are able to clarify PTA’s role, and demonstrate that a credible threat exists to young people through this game, and that nothing can be done to curb these threats, the ban cannot be justified.

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