Today's Paper | July 18, 2024

Published 18 Apr, 2024 08:14am

Govt told to justify or withdraw ban on X

• Petitioners’ lawyers tell SHC govt didn’t provide legal basis for shutdown
• Interior secretary defends restrictions before IHC, cites national security concerns
• Says Twitter has not complied with requests of Pakistani authorities

KARACHI / ISLAMABAD: The Sindh High Court (SHC) on Wednesday directed the interior ministry to either justify the shutdown of social media platform X or rescind its Feb 17 letter directing the telecom regulator to ban the site.

The high court’s directions came two months after the interior ministry ordered the disruption of X, formerly known as Twitter.

Meanwhile, the ministry also submitted a detailed report before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday, insisting that the site was banned “in the interest of upholding national security, maintaining public order, and preserving the integrity of our nation”.

The social media platform X has been rarely accessible since Feb 17, when the PTI called for protests against the then-Rawalpindi commissioner’s admission of vote manipulation in the Feb 8 elections.

“The Sindh High Court has given the government one week to withdraw the letter, failing which, on the next date, they will pass appropriate orders,” Abdul Moiz Jaferii, a lawyer challenging the ban, told AFP.

During a hearing before a two-judge bench led by Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi and Justice Abdul Mubeen, the high court also instructed the Ministry of Interior to submit reasons for imposing an official ban on X.

Advocates Jibran Nasir and Jaferii argued that the government had not provided any legal basis or substantial reasons for the shutdown of X, which they claim violates a prior court order dated Feb 22, thereby constituting contempt of court.

When the bench asked about the reasons behind closure of X, Additional Attorney General Zia Makhdoom contended that the social media platform was working a day ago. However, he sought time to get instructions from the respondents.

The petitioners’ lawyers argued that a huge fine could be imposed on social media platforms carrying misinformation and false news and the service providers were bound to issue a notice before shutting down a social media platform seeking a response, failing which the relevant platform can be closed.

Advocate Jaferii pointed out that before the emergence of the interior ministry’s Feb 17 letter, the PTA had even refused to admit the closure of X and the federal law officers used to mislead the court about the platform’s functioning through virtual private networks (VPNs).

The SHC chief justice said the institutions and courts were there for the benefit of the people and the supremacy of the Constitution. He noted that no justification had so far been produced in court for banning X.

He said the interior ministry must come up with reasons for writing a letter to the PTA for shutting down X or to rescind its Feb 17 letter; otherwise, the court will pass an appropriate order in the next hearing on May 9.

The bench was hearing a set of identical petitions filed against the suspension of mobile internet and broadband services during and before general elections, as well as the outage of social media platforms, including X, across the country.

At the previous hearing, the interior ministry informed the SHC that the social media platform X was blocked in February till further orders on the reports of intelligence agencies.

In its earlier interim order, the SHC directed the respondents to ensure the 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 justification or reasonable grounds for its closure.

‘Ban necessary to protect national integrity’

Meanwhile, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) received a detailed report from Interior Secretary Khurram Agha on Wednesday, defending the temporary suspension of X citing national interest and security concerns.

The report, submitted before IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq, said the social media platform was not registered in Pakistan nor was it under any obligation to comply with Pakistani laws.

It claimed that X had “not complied with the requests of Pakistani authorities” after the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s cybercrime wing 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 the FIA’s wing had initiated several FIRs 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.

The report said the interior ministry had on Feb 17 asked for blocking of X 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 an agreement to abide by local laws. It said 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 said social media platforms were extensively used to propagate extremist ideologies and fake information, adding that some miscreants were using social media as a tool to create a law and order situation and destabilise Pakistan.

It said the ban on X was not to restrict access to information but to streamline the use of social media platforms, and the interior ministry was under obligation to protect citizens’ rights and national interests.

It pointed out that TikTok was also banned earlier and was only restored after it agreed to abide by the law of the land.

Justice Farooq adjou­rned further hearing in the petition till May 2.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2024

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