• Telecom regulator tells SHC it is bound to follow interior ministry orders
• IHC issues notices to PTA, information ministry over plea challenging ‘ban’ on social media platform X

KARACHI: The Pakis­tan Tele­communication Authority (PTA) has conceded that the Ministry of Interior had issued instru­c­tions to suspend mobile phone services on Feb 8, the polling day.

In its reply submitted before a Sindh High Court (SHC) bench on Tuesday, the authority asserted that it was bound to follow the directions on the interior ministry and was merely the implementing agency.

Separately, the Islam­a­bad High Court (IHC) has also issued notices to the authority and the information ministry on a plea challenging the “ban” on social media platform X.

A two-judge SHC bench, headed by Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi, was hearing identical petitions filed against the suspension of mobile internet and broadband services and the outage of X/Twitter.

The PTA response was submitted over a petition, filed by activist Jibran Nasir, regarding the closure of online services in December 2023 and January 2024.

It also contained the Ministry of Interior’s letter dated Feb 8, carrying directives to suspend “mobile services” on the pretext of “security environment” following a “surge in terrorist activities”.

The letter stated that the situation warranted “temporary suspension of mobile services” and dire­cted the PTA to instruct cellular mobile operators to suspend the services.

PTA stated that it passed on the instruction of the operators to suspe­nd cellular data and call services across the country (except Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir) at 5:39am on the polling day.

They were instructed to resume the services on the ministry’s directives around 24 hours later.

PTA pleaded that the ministry “acts on behalf of the government” and iss­ues directions for the closure of network services.

“[PTA] is under a legal obligation to comply with the instructions/directions based on the reports of intelligence agencies,” the PTA said, adding that the ministry never shared the reports with it.

The reply added that under section 54(2) of the Pakistan Telecommuni­cation Act, 1996, the government has “preference and priority” over any lic­e­nsed operator “during war or hostilities” or for “defence or security” purposes.

The authority issued an SOP for this action titled ‘Closure of Telecommuni­cation Services due to Nat­ional Security Concerns’ on Feb 15, 2010, to ensure effective implementation of the directive.

The Ministry of Interior sought more time to file its reply, after which the court gave them time till March 20.

IHC takes up plea

IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq took up a plea challenging the restr­i­c­tion on X filed by Ehti­sham Abbasi, a resident of Islamabad on Monday.

At the outset of the hearing, CJ Farooq asked if X was down. Sardar Masroof, who appeared as the petitioner’s counsel, said the government has “imposed a ban on X since February 17”.

The IHC chief justice then noted that the SHC had already issued an ord­er on the matter. However, the counsel informed the court that a contempt case was being heard over the failure to implement the SHC’s directives.

Later, the hearing was adjourned till next week.

In an interim restraining order in January, the SHC had asked the PTA and other authorities not to disrupt and shut down internet and broadband services unless the applicable provisions of the relevant laws were attracted.

On Feb 23, it also ordered authorities to restore X if there were no reasonable grounds to suspend access to the social media platform.

Malik Asad in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2024

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