The Sindh High Court (SHC) on Wednesday expressed displeasure at the suspension of internet services on election day and directed the federal government to provide reasons for disruption.

“Why are you making a spectacle of yourself in front of the world?” SHC Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi asked, directing authorities to restore internet services and social media across the country.

He passed these remarks as the court resumed hearing three petitions against the suspension of internet services. Lawyers Jibran Nasir and Hyder Raza as well as the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan had filed petitions against the ministries and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority for causing hindrance to access social media platforms and disturbing mobile internet and broadband services in the run-up to Feb 8 polls.

On Jan 24, the SHC had issued an interim restraining order, asking the PTA and other respondents to ensure that there must be no disruption and shutdown of mobile phone, internet and broadband services till Jan 29 unless the relevant provisions of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisa­tion) Act, 1996 and Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 were attracted.

On Jan 29, a federal law officer and the lawyer for the PTA had sought more time to file comments on behalf of authority, the information technology and communication and interior ministries and the court had put off the hearing till Feb 6 and also extended the interim order.

However, a countrywide suspension of cellular services was witnessed on February 8 — the day millions of Pakistanis voted. While the caretaker government cited security threats for the decision, the disruption was strongly criticised both locally and internationally.

Meanwhile, services of social media platform X (formerly Twitter) have been disrupted for the fifth day today. The platform has been inaccessible since Satur­day when former Rawal­pindi commissioner Liaquat Chattha held a press conference and accused the chief election commissioner and chief justice of being involved in rigging the general elections.

The hearing

As the proceedings commenced, Justice Abbasi quipped: “The way you held elections, everyone around the world witnessed it. Even the international media is telling the world how elections were held.”

He noted that the internet was not working “here, there or anywhere”, adding that the services were disrupted everywhere.

“Don’t do this, the public understands who is doing what,” the judge remarked. “Let the whistle of the pressure cooker blow lightly, the more you try to clamp it down the larger the explosion would be,” he warned.

“Who’s going to be president, who’s going to be prime minister, who will get governorship; if this had to happen, why were elections held?” Justice Abbasi asked.

It must be noted that a day earlier, the PPP and PML-N reached a consensus on a power-sharing formula. In a joint press conference at Zardari House in the federal capital last night, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said the parties had sufficient numbers to form the federal government, with PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif nominated as the candidate for the post of the prime minister.

During the hearing today, Justice Abbasi said: “What was the need for the elections if positions were to be distributed sitting in a drawing hall? You people are powerful and can do whatever you want to.”

He further lamented that the courts and all other institutions had lost their respect. “Who is running the country?” the judge asked.

For his part, the PTA counsel said the government had decided to shut down internet and cellular services on Feb 8 over security reservations submitted by provinces.

“A law and order situation in the country was prevented because of this decision,” he claimed, adding that the most important factor was national security.

However, Justice Abbasi said “a joke was made by shutting down the entire country” and highlighted that the Centre was putting the entire blame on provincial governments. He also noted that internet services should be shut down in select areas and not in the entire country if a law and order situation arises.

Subsequently, the court sought a response from the federal government over the suspension of internet services and demanded that they be restored immediately. The hearing was adjourned till March 5.

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