ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) has directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to frame within three months rules for blocking ‘unwanted’ websites after it learnt that the PTA had blocked over 800,000 websites in violation of the statutory provision.
The disclosure was made by the PTA before the court during the hearing of a petition filed against the blocking of the website of left-wing Awami Watan Party (AWP).
After the PTA admission that the “rules [related to blocking of websites] have not been prescribed yet” even three years after the enactment of relevant laws, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah observed that under such circumstances, “blocking of website was indeed in violation of the principles of natural justice”.
The PTA under sub-section 1 of Section 37 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 has been empowered to block the websites if the content is against the glory of Islam, integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, public order, morality or contemptuous.
However, the court observed that under sub-section 2 of Peca’s Section 37, “the authority shall, with the approval of the federal government, prescribe rules providing for, among other matters, safeguards, transparent process and effective oversight mechanism for exercise of power under sub-section 1.
Over 800,000 websites blocked in Pakistan in violation of fundamental rights, observes court
In its detailed order issued on Saturday, the IHC observed: “The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is definitely not empowered to pass an order or take action under section 37 of the Act of 2016 in derogation of the mandatory requirements of due process. It is further noted that it is a statutory duty of the PTA to prescribe the rules contemplated by the legislature under sub-section 2 of section 37 of the Act.”
“It is mandatory for the authority to prescribe rules for the purpose described under Section 37(2) of the Act,” the court order added.
‘AWP website blocked during polls on spy agency advice’
The AWP had filed a petition in the IHC through its counsel Umer Gilani and Haider Imtiaz to challenge the blocking of its website during the general elections in 2018.
In its reply, the PTA disclosed that the AWP website was blocked upon the recommendation of an intelligence agency.
The PTA cyber surveillance director had argued in the court that Peca’s Section 37 empowered the competent authority to block websites without notice or affording an opportunity of hearing to the person who could be adversely affected by an order or action of the authority.
The court, however, observed, “This interpretation of Section 37 of Peca is in flagrant violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution as well as settled law enunciated by the superior courts.”
It declared that the “principles of natural justice are required to be read in very statute”.
As per 2018 annual report of the PTA, there are about 800,000 websites already blocked in Pakistan due to the PTA’s prevailing interpretation of Section 37.
Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2019