X’s failure to address concerns regarding misuse of platform necessitated ban, IHC told

Published April 17, 2024
Interior Secretary Khurram Agha outside IHC on Wednesday. — Screengrab from video via author
Interior Secretary Khurram Agha outside IHC on Wednesday. — Screengrab from video via author

The interior ministry on Wednesday told the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that the failure of X, formerly Twitter, to address concerns regarding its misuse necessitated a ban on the social media platform.

Interior Secretary Khurram Agha, on behalf of his ministry, submitted a report on the IHC’s orders on journalist Ehtisham Abbasi’s petition challenging the ban.

The development came as Pakistan marked two months of the disruption in the services of X.

Access to X has been disrupted 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 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 rejected a report on digital media outages and summoned the interior secretary along with documentary evidence providing the ground for the disruption of the social media app.

The court had also summoned the interior secretary on April 17.

“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,” IHC Chief Justice (CJ) Aamer Farooq had warned.

Today, the IHC CJ presided over the hearing while Advocate Amna Ali appeared as the petitioner’s counsel. Additional Attorney General (AAG) Munawar Iqbal Duggal was present on the state’s behalf.

During the hearing, the AAG informed the court that the interior ministry had filed a report on the matter.

Justice Farooq then stated that another petition had been filed on the disruption, on which he was issuing notices to the respondents and sought a reply on the new plea.

Subsequently, the hearing was adjourned till May 2.

The report

The report submitted by the interior ministry, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, said the “failure of Twitter/X to adhere to the lawful directives of the government of Pakistan and address concerns regarding the misuse of its platform necessitated the imposition of a ban”.

Detailing the platform’s shutdown, the report said the interior ministry had on February 17 “asked for blocking of X (Twitter) immediately till further orders” on the reports of intelligence agencies.

“The decision to impose a ban on Twitter/X in Pakistan was made in the interest of upholding national security, maintaining public order, and preserving the integrity of our nation,” it contended, adding that the decision was taken after considering “various confidential reports received from intelligence and security agencies of Pakistan”.

It emphasised that “hostile elements operating on Twitter/X have nefarious intentions to create an environment of chaos and instability, with the ultimate goal of destabilising the country and plunging it into some form of anarchy”.

“The ban on Twitter serves as a necessary step to disrupt the activities of these elements and prevent them from achieving their destructive objectives,” the report said.

It noted that X was neither registered in Pakistan nor had it signed any agreement to abide by local laws. It said that the platform’s “failure to establish a legal presence or engage in meaningful cooperation with Pakistani authorities underscores the need for regulatory measures to ensure accountability and adherence to national laws”.

“The ban on Twitter/X serves as a necessary step to address this regulatory vacuum and compel the platform to respect the sovereignty and legal jurisdiction of Pakistan,” the interior ministry added.

It claimed that X had “not complied with the requests of Pakistani authorities” after the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s Cyber Crime Wing (CCW) forwarded numerous requests via the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to take “significant action to block accounts involved in a defamatory campaign against the honourable chief justice of Pakistan”.

Noting that CCW had “initiated several first information reports against hundreds of Twitter accounts”, the interior ministry asserted that the “lack of cooperation from Twitter/X authorities in addressing content that violates Pakistani laws and values further justifies the need for regulatory measures, including the temporary ban”.

“The government of Pakistan has no alternative but to temporarily block access/suspend the operation of this platform within Pakistan,” it said.

On concerns of violation of fundamental rights, the interior ministry argued that the ban was “not intended to curtail freedom of expression or restrict access to information” but was “aimed at ensuring responsible usage of social media platforms in accordance with the laws of Pakistan and the principles of responsible journalism”.

It further contended that the disruption was not in contravention of Article 19 of the Constitution (freedom of speech) as the law was “subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order, morality, and the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan”.

The report maintained that the decision to impose the ban was a “legitimate exercise of the government’s authority to regulate the use of social media platforms in accordance with these constitutional principles”.

The interior ministry noted that other countries of the world had also imposed bans on social media platforms from time to time and when “deemed necessary for the safety and security of their country”.

It went on to recall a ban on TikTok in Pakistan “due to similar concerns”, which it said was lifted upon the company signing an MoU, agreeing to abide by local laws and address content moderation issues.

It “vehemently denied” the arguments made in the petition against the ban, arguing that the laws and older judgments cited therein were “not applicable” in this case. The ministry urged the IHC to dispose of the petition.

The plea

The petition was filed by Ehtisham Abbasi, a resident of Islamabad, and named the information ministry and the 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”.

SHC seeks response from interior ministry by May 9 on X ban

Meanwhile, in a similar hearing, the Sindh High Court summoned a response from the interior ministry on the ban on X by May 9 and ordered it to rescind its February 17 letter within a week.

A two-judge bench headed by Sindh Chief Justice (CJ) Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi and comprising Justice Abdul Mubeen Lakho resumed the hearing on a set of petitions filed against the suspension of mobile and internet services during general elections as well as the outage of social media platforms across the country.

Advocate Abdul Moiz Jaferii and activist Jibran Nasir, lawyers for the petitioners, told the judges that the interior ministry had admitted to writing a letter to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to shut down X without any reasons given or the relevant law and conditions under which the instruction was given.

CJ Abbasi questioned for what reason was X shut down to which Additional Attorney General (AAG) Zia Makhdoom said the social media platform was working a day ago. The chief justice subsequently asked him whether it was currently working or not to which the AAG said he would take instructions on the matter.

Advocate Jaferii continued that the ongoing restriction of X despite the SHC’s Feb 22 order to restore services amounted to contempt of court.

“It has finally been admitted that X has been closed. It was closed the day after the Rawalpindi commissioner said there was rigging in the elections. Because the media has been controlled but there are discussions on X.”

The lawyers for the petitioners said a large fine could be levied on a social media platform carrying wrong information and that service providers are issued a notice prior to shutting down social media to provide a response, failing which the relevant platform can be closed.

Nasir said that 40 to 50 million people in the country used X, adding that internet speeds were considerably affected by using virtual private networks .

The AAG requested time to take instructions to which the chief justice asked him if only X was shut down.

“You have to run the country, you know the facts on the ground, you also know the national interest. There are some things that are getting out of hand and no one is benefiting from it,” CJ Abbasi said, adding that the institutions and the courts were there for the benefit of the people.

“Compliance with the Constitution and the national interest are important,” the judge said. The AAG was subsequently asked to give the reasons for the interior ministry’s letter to shut down X.

“The world laughs at us due to internet shutdown,” CJ Abbasi said.

Meanwhile, Jaferii said that prior to the emergence of the Feb 17 interior ministry letter, the PTA even refused to admit that it had shut down X and state lawyers used to misguide the courts that X is working by using VPNs.

The bench subsequently ordered the interior ministry to rescind its Feb 17 letter for the shutdown of X, saying that it would give its verdict if the letter was not withdrawn within a week.

It also ordered the ministry to give the reasons for the shutdown of X till May 9.

The chief justice said there was no provision in the law that said the interior ministry should take action based on the reports of sensitive institutions.

“Some people are thinking that what they are doing is right. They are so powerful that they are running the country and what is being gained by shutting down small things. The whole world must laugh at us.”

The lawyers for the petitioners said that mobile services were suspended on the day of the general elections to prevent any terrorist attack or blast. Nasir added that such incidents were not caused by using X or social media.

“Prima facie, no justification was presented for banning X,” the chief justice said.



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