KARACHI: While hearing a constitutional petition filed by civil rights campaigners against a crackdown on bloggers, the Sindh High Court on Monday directed the interior ministry and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to file a detailed report on cybercrime laws.

A two-judge bench headed by SHC Chief Justice Ahmed Ali M. Shaikh was hearing the petition filed jointly by Farieha Aziz, Zohra Yusuf, Afia Salam, Ziad Zafar, Ghazi Salahuddin, Nazim Haji, Uzma Noorani, Mahnaz Rahman and Jibran Nasir against the ongoing crackdown on social media activists under the garb of action against those who criticise national security agencies.

Appearing before the court, the federal government law officer submitted that the cases under the cybercrime laws were registered in Lahore and Islamabad, hence the SHC had no jurisdiction to hear the petition.

The FIA claimed that it had so far registered only one case under the cybercrime laws at Islamabad. It said that the case was registered by the FIA counterterrorism wing after a thorough investigation and a suspect, Adnan Afzal Qureshi, was arrested in the case.

The petitioners, represented by barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, said they were aggrieved by the respondents’ attempts “to curb the fundamental right to free speech through, inter alia, unlawful detention and threats to and harassment of individuals”.

They submitted that the then interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, on May 14 ordered the FIA to initiate action against the persons running ‘anti-military’ campaigns on the internet.

“The minister claimed to have taken notice of online criticism of the armed forces following the announcement by the military’s media affairs wing of the withdrawal of a tweet published by the ISPR rejecting the inquiry report from the Prime Minister’s Office regarding a news report published [in] Dawn on alleged differences between the civilian government and the armed forces regarding counterterrorism strategies,” the petitioners said.

“Since then, the FIA has detained dozens of people involved in what it calls ‘an organised campaign’ against the country’s armed forces on social media,” they added.

The rights campaigners informed the court that the respondents had not disclosed the legal basis for the arrest, detention and inquiry of individuals following its crackdown on online dissent.

The petitioners requested the court to declare that criticism of the armed forces did not, by itself, amount to a criminal offence and couldn’t be subjected to any coercive action by the state and that Article 19 of the Constitution protected the freedom of expression and the right to criticise any branch of the government even if such criticism was unfounded or unwarranted and subject only to the specific exceptions mentioned in Article 19 itself.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2017