Connection interrupted: Cellular services can only be suspended in ‘emergency’

Published: January 18, 2017
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PHOTO: FILE

PHOTO: FILE

ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) Tuesday granted the Additional Attorney General one month’s time to argue over the federal government’s stance over the frequent suspension of mobile phone services in the federal capital.

During a hearing on several petitions over the matter on Tuesday, AAG, Afnan Karim Kundi, argued that the federal government was empowered to suspend mobile phone services under sub-section (2) of Section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunications (Reorganisation) Act, 1996.

The provision states that the government shall exercise “preference and priority” in all telecom systems when necessary “for the defence and security of Pakistan”.

Justice Athar Minallah, however, remarked that the wording of sub-section (3) of Section 54 clearly states that while services can be suspended, it can only be done so after an emergency has been proclaimed.

Subsequently, the AAG requested for more time to prepare his arguments, which was accepted.

During the hearing on Tuesday, the court once again, prima facie, noted that the suspension of mobile phone services by the government was illegal as powers conferred upon the government under Section 54 (3) of the PTA Act can only be applied in clearly defined circumstances.

Petitioners Masooma Hassan, Waqar Ahmad, Muhammad Zohaib, and Ahmed Raza had filed petitions last year against the intermittent suspension of mobile services regarding the March 23 Parade last year.

The petitions in the IHC against PTA, the federal government, and telecom companies allege that the government, the regulator and telecom corporations had collectively violated their fundamental rights to access telecommunication services.

At the previous hearing of the case, after hearing arguments from the counsel for the petitioners, Umer Gilani, and counsel for telecom company Zong, Shafaqat Jan, the court had expressed its tentative view that the stance seemed backed by law and had issued notice the AAG.

On September 26, 2016, PTA’s counsel Munawwar Iqbal Duggal had disclosed on that the authority did not order the suspension of mobile phone service of its own accord, rather it was only complying with directives issued by the federal government issued on December 26, 2009.

According to the directives the PTA is required to shut down mobile services within six hours of receiving a request to this effect from either law enforcement agencies or the military.

Gilani, however, has been arguing that the directives were illegal since they lie outside the scope of Section 54 of the PTA Act which says services can only be suspended during a proclaimed emergency.

Moreover, Gilani said that the direction was issued by the Prime Minister alone without it being discussed or endorsed by the Federal Cabinet.

Four citizens had approached the court urging to declare the practice of suspension of service illegal as it is usually done without having met the threshold statutory requirement of issuance of “Proclamation of Emergency” by the President.

Gilani urged the court to declare the suspension of mobile telecom services illegal as it had adversely affected their lives, citing the PTA moves during the last 10 days of March. They said that more than 70 million Pakistanis used mobile phones and almost 10 million of them rely on it for money transfer.

The petitioners had made the PTA, Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication secretary and chief executive officers of three private telecom service providers as respondents.

The mobile phone services usually remain suspended during large sit-ins, Muharram and Rabiul Awal processions, important funeral and chehlum, and sometimes during the sermons of Lal Masjid clerics.

The petitioners complained that suspension of mobile phone service not only impacted their ability to communicate with their families but also put the entire citizenry in a seriously hazardous position.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2017.

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