LAHORE: Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mamoon Rashid Sheikh on Monday issued notices to the federal and provincial governments on an application seeking a permanent ban on upcoming ‘Aurat March’ for being an “anti-state” and “un-Islamic” activity.

“Prima facie the Aurat March is misdirection and a failed attempt to raise grave issues commonly faced by women,” claimed applicant Advocate Azhar Siddique, who agitated the matter by filing a civil miscellaneous application in his already pending petition for enforcement of new social media regulations.

The lawyer stated that hundreds of women would once again march with placards displaying various messages that allegedly manifest anarchy and vulgarity. He argued that by openly displaying their aspirations, during the last year’s march, some women, men and gay persons dared take a step ahead in creating an environment that was traditionally, culturally and morally less binding upon them.

Advocate Siddique contended that the basic purpose of women’s day was to recognise and appreciate women for their achievements as well as solidarity with women struggling all over the world against cruelty, discrimination, ignorance and domestic violence.

Chief Justice Sheikh issues notices to federal, provincial governments

However, he said, the Aurat March, this year scheduled for March 8, attracted scores of women from various walks of life also garnered criticism on social media due to the fact that there were always offensive messages on placards.

He alleged that the women march enjoyed funding from various anti-state parties which wanted to create anarchy among the masses. Apparently, he claimed, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement and its allies had a hidden agenda and were the major stakeholders in this march.

Besides enforcement of the social media regulations recently introduced by the government, the lawyer also requested the court to strictly regulate and silence forever ‘anti-state’ activities such as the Aurat March.

Taking up another application by a digital rights activist against the new social media regulations, Chief Jus­tice Sheikh also issued notices to the federal government and other authorities. He sought the appearance of Federal Investigation Agency’s director Lahore and DIG (operations) at the next hearing on Feb 27 to learn about the steps being taken for implementation of the impugned regulations.

Advocate Usama Khawar Ghumman appeared on behalf of activist Ms Jannat Ali, who filed the application in the main petition moved by Advocate Siddique in favour of the new regulations.

The counsel argued that the impugned rules were unconstitutional as they indiscriminately violated constitutionally secured freedom of speech and expression, right to access to information and right to privacy of all citizens.

To a court’s query about the locus standi of the applicant to agitate the matter, Mr Ghumman said the applicant being a digital rights activist and active user of social media was deeply concerned about the chilling effect that such overregulation was having on her online speech and fundamental freedoms.

Advocate Siddique also opposed the competency of the application by the activist and urged the court to dismiss the same.

Mr Ghumman, however, argued that the applicant was concerned about broad discretionary powers given to the national coordinator (a person appointed by the federal government), leaving great room for abuse. He argued that parliament had not given such broad powers to the government itself so it could not delegate such draconian powers to the national coordinator.

The counsel said the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 prima facie appeared to be illegal and in conflict with the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2020