• Social media platform is blocked till further orders, admits interior ministry
• Bench orders uninterrupted internet services, access to social media platforms

KARACHI: In its first direct admission regarding imposing an official ban on X (formerly Twitter), the interior ministry on Wednesday informed the Sindh High Court that the social media platform was blocked in February till further orders on the reports of intelligence agencies.

Access to X has been disrupted in many areas of the country since February 17.

The interior ministry’s admission came a few days after Federal Information Minister Attaullah Tarar had acknowledged that X was already banned when the new government took over the reins from the caretaker set-up, saying there was no official notification for the clampdown.

The interior ministry and other respondents filed comments/replies before a two-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi and comprising Justice Abdul Mubeen Lakho on a set of petitions filed against suspension of mobile and internet services during general elections as well as outage of social media platforms including X across the country.

“Upon receipt of the reports of intelligence agencies, the ministry of interior vide its letter dated 17-02-2024, in accordance with rule 5(7)(ii) of the removal and blocking of unlawful online contents (procedure, oversight, and safeguards) rules, 2021 asked/required for blocking of X (Twitter) immediately till further orders, accordingly the social media platform i.e. X(Twitter) is blocked,” the comments filed by the interior ministry said.

In response to another petition, it said: “On 9th May, 2023 request from all provincial government and government of AJ&K was received for suspension of data services (3G/4G) and restriction on social media sites due to worsening of security and law & order situation in their provinces, in post arrest scenario of the ex-PM (Mr Imran Khan). The orders of suspension of 3G/4G services are issued on the recommendations of home department of the provinces or in case of threat alerts from security agencies.”

It asked the SHC to dispose of these petitions.

At the outset of the hearing, the ministry of information technology & telecom and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority filed comments and counter affidavits.

Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Khaleeq Ahmed sought more time to file comments on behalf of the interior ministry.

However, the chief justice expressed anger at the ministry and warned the DAG that the bench would summon interior secretary if reply was not submitted by the next hearing.

At the end of hearing, the DAG filed comments on behalf of the interior ministry in two petitions.

Jibran Nasir, one of the petitioners, argued that access to X/Twitter was never restored even after several orders were passed by the court.

The bench in its order said that the DAG filed statements along with parawise comments on behalf of the ministries of interior and IT & Telecom while lawyer for the PTA filed additional comments and counter affidavits which were taken on record.

Adjourning the hearing till April 17, the bench said that its earlier interim orders to continue till the next date of hearing.

In its earlier interim order, the SHC had directed the respondents to ensure provision of smooth and uninterrupted internet services as well as access to social media platforms unless relevant laws were invoked and also specifically ordered to restore X if there was no lawful justification or reasonable grounds for its closure.

The IT & Telecom ministry stated that the issue of closure of telecom services was within the power of the federal government while the PTA said that it had a limited role only to the extent of implementation of directions issued by the ministry of interior based on the reports of intelligence agencies.

Under the Telecom Act, the federal government held preference and priority in telecommunication systems over any licence and particularly in instances of internal aggression, defence or security of Pakistan.

“Therefore, the policy directive establishes the procedure for temporarily suspending mobile services in designated areas and for specific durations based on national security grounds,” it added.

The PTA in its additional comments also questioned the maintainability of these petitions and stated that the right to use mobile services was not a fundamental right rather it was a licensed service provided to the subscribers in accordance with the terms and conditions of the service contract and laws.

It also stated that the ministry of IT & Telecom while exercising its powers under the Pakistan Telecommunication Act, 1996 had issued a policy directive in 2009 about “closure of telecom services due to national security concerns”.

The authority has filed counter affidavits on applications filed by the petitioners seeking contempt proceedings against PTA and others for not restoring social media platforms despite court orders.

Last month, Zarar Khuhro along with some other journalists and academics had filed a petition against outage of X and sought restoration of the service.

In January, lawyer Jibran Nasir had filed a petition against the ministries and PTA for causing hindrance to access to social media platforms and disturbing mobile internet and broadband services without any cogent reason and with intent to stop political parties as well as independent candidates from campaigning on social media for the Feb 8 general elections.

Last year, two identical petitions were filed by the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan along with two others against outages of mobile and internet services as well as ban on social media platforms.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2024

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