There have been multiple incidents reported regarding Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocking websites without following legal procedures. When websites and platforms have been blocked, there is no opportunity to challenge these decisions by PTA.
On 12th of September 2019, the Islamabad high court issued a detailed order regarding these blockages as a response to a petition filed by Awami Workers Party, a left-wing political party registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). PTA had blocked AWP’s website in the middle of their election campaign without any prior notice, warning or legal grounds. The AWP sees this action as another attack on progressive voices in the country which are only trying to exercise their constitutional and democratic rights by becoming a part of the electoral process.
During the hearing, IHC shared that it was not just AWP but over 800,000 other websites have been blocked by PTA. AWP Islamabad’s information secretary, Shahzeb stated that they were surprised to see how the document which was supposed to explain why PTA took this action was missing from the document PTA submitted in the court. He also said that PTA admitted to not following rules established before taking any such action according to Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016.
It also interesting to see how section 37 PECA 2016 allows blocking of content which is against “glory of lslam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality” but does not define what any of these phrases, such as “glory of Islam”, mean. Using such vague and broad criteria for online censorship violates the basic principles of free speech enshrined in article 19-A of the constitution which ensures the right to freedom of expression and information.
In the landmark judgement which is seen as the victory for internet in Pakistan, IHC also stated PTA’s practice of blocking websites as violation of principles of natural justice. Taking a closer look at the whole process also puts light on how the state, while trying to hide how it has been violating the social contract it has with the citizens has been trying to silence the people and organisations being critical on issues while voicing their concerns through digital platforms.
The court has also ordered PTA to work with the government to form better and more transparent mechanisms and rules within three months.
“After going through the whole experience of this case and being politically affected by the actions by PTA in the name of alleged hate speech, AWP has realised how digital rights and spaces hold and immense importance hence, they will soon be planning an awareness campaign for citizens on how reclaiming digital spaces is equally important as organizing the masses around human rights and other socio-political questions” said Shahzeb, information secretary AWP Islamabad.
Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Blog