ISLAMABAD: The federal government has agreed to ‘review’ controversial rules framed to enforce the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) against ‘unwanted’ social media feeds.

Representing the federal government before the Islamabad High Court (IHC), the Attorney General for Pakistan assured that he would invite relevant stakeholders as well as the petitioners to review the social media rules.

The petitioners are Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) secretary general Nasir Zaidi, Awami Workers Party, Dawn’s Employees Union, Amber Rahim Shamsi and a citizen Mohammad Ashfaq Jatt who have challenged these rules, saying they are contrary to the freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Constitution.

According to the petitions, implementation of ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020’ will inevitably lead to violation of rights to livelihood and freedom of trade and profession, guaranteed to the citizens under Articles 9 and 18 of the Constitution.

AG to consult petitioners and other stakeholders before taking up the matter with PTA

The petitioners are of the opinion that in the garb of these rules, criticism of the government or the public office-holders had been made a cognisable offence.

While hearing the petitions, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah observed the “court feels the government did not consult the stakeholders before promulgating the rules”. In order to safeguard the constitutional provisions that guaranteed the freedom of expression, the consultation should be widespread, he observed.

Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan assured the court that he would invite all the petitioners and relevant stakeholders to review the rules and he would discuss this with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) following the consultation.

The petitioners have cited the Ministry of Information Technology secretary and PTA chairman as respondents.

AG Khan said, in his opinion, social media could only be restricted in the extreme circumstance.

Justice Minallah appreciating the response of the AG termed it “a fair stance” and advised the petitioners to express their concerns regarding the social media rules in the meeting that the AG would convene.

“Let’s start this with a positive note,” advised the IHC chief justice.

He asked the petitioners to submit their contentions before the attorney general in writing as well. He suggested that besides the petitioners, the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) should also be consulted on this matter.

Kashif Ali Malik, counsel for the petitioners, requested the court to restrain the government from taking any adverse action till the final adjudication of the petitions.

Justice Minallah, however, remarked that in case of any misuse of the law, the aggrieved party may approach the court for redressal of any grievance with regard to these rules.

The court sought a report from the AG and adjourned further hearing till Feb 26.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2021

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