The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday summoned the interior secretary on April 17 to give detailed reasons for the shutdown of social media platform X — which has been inaccessible since February.

The directives came as the court heard a petition challenging the “ban” on X.

Access to X has been disrupted in Pakistan since February 17, when former Rawal­pindi commissioner Liaquat Chattha accused the chief election commissioner and chief justice of Pakistan of being involved in rigging the February 8 general elections.

Rights bodies and journalists’ organisations have condemned the muzzling of social media, while internet service providers have also lamented losses due to disruptions. The United States had also called on Pakistan last month to lift restrictions on social media platforms.

On March 20, the interior ministry informed the Sindh High Court (SHC) that the social media platform was blocked in February pending further orders on the reports of intelligence agencies.

The interior ministry’s admission came days after Information Minister Attaullah Tarar 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.

At the previous hearing, the IHC had sought a detailed report from the interior ministry regarding the outage of the social media platform.

Today’s hearing

During today’s hearing, the Interior Ministry joint secretary appeared before the court and presented a report on the outage of the social platform. However, IHC CJ Aamer Farooq, who presided over the hearing, expressed his dissatisfaction at the report.

During the hearing, the secretary stated that X was disrupted on the basis of reports by intelligence agencies. At this, the IHC CJ asked the official to produce documentation, adding that he had been summoned to provide details.

“What manner is this, what is this attitude?” CJ Farooq asked. “Assist the court, what is this? You have not brought any files or anything […] everything was done deliberately, everything has been shut. Shall I summon the secretary?” he asked.

He then told the secretary to provide documents and concrete evidence, rather than “make verbal statements in court”.

The secretary then went on to say that content uploaded online was a “threat to national security”.

“I have told you not to make speeches, give me reasons,” the IHC CJ replied. He also expressed his dissatisfaction at the report submitted in court today, saying: “My secretary can draft a better report than this.”

He questioned whether the secretary was appearing in court for the first time. “The report says that content which is against national security is uploaded to social media which is why it was shut down.”

He said that there must be some evidence of this, asking whether the interior ministry shut down the social media platform on the reports received by the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

Referring to the report presented today, the IHC CJ said, “There are no reasons [stated] in this. This is based on speculation.”

He then remarked, “Call the interior ministry secretary. He (joint secretary) can’t handle this.” He also directed to submit the directives issued by other courts on the issue.

“There is malice in every institution. What can I say,” the chief justice said. “I will summon the interior secretary, only then will something happen. There are [similar] cases in other courts. Let’s see who lifts [the restriction first]. Let’s see which court decides first,” he said.

“Whatever the threats are, give detailed reasons and evidence,” the IHC CJ said, adding that a report based on speculations should not be submitted.

“Elections have concluded. Let’s finish this now. Let the interior secretary come, then we will see. If the secretary is unable [to give reasons], then I will summon the prime minister,” he remarked.

The joint secretary urged the court to give “one more chance”. The court then summoned the interior ministry secretary at the next hearing on April 17 and directed him to produce evidence on the threat to national security.

The plea

The petition was filed by Ehtisham Abbasi, a resident of Islamabad, and named the information ministry and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) as the respondents in the case.

It urged the high court to issue directives to the respondents to “immediately lift the ban on X (Twitter) access in the interest of justice”.

It argued that the “act of the respondents against journalists particularly in the recent past is highly violative” of Article 19 of the Constitution (freedom of speech).

Referring to the “very important fundamental right” as provided under Article 14 of the Constitution (inviolability of dignity of man, etc), the plea said that the “liberty of a person” was a “pivotal right and falls squarely within the ambit of right to life and dignity of a person”.

The petition asserted that the “impugned inaction of the respondents is deliberate, arbitrary, mala fide, without lawful authority” and “derogatory” to the provisions of the Constitution and the fundamental rights guaranteed therein.

It added that the “impugned inaction is patently void, ab initio, a contrived an untenable, misplaced, misdirected, unfounded, erroneous, contrary to the law and facts on the record”, and was liable to be set aside by the IHC.

The petitioner further argued that the disruption of X “suffers from serious legal infirmities as the same is not sustainable in view of the settled law” and that “a number of other constitutional and statutory rights have been infringed and circumvented”.

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