The Islamabad High Court (IHC) has noted that a country where freedom of expression is suppressed suffers economically and even the impression of restriction on press should be avoided.
“Freedom of expression is extremely important. A country where freedom of expression is suppressed remains economically backward. The court has written in an earlier order that there should not even be an impression of a restriction on the freedom of press,” IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah said on Friday.
He was hearing a petition filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) against the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority's (PTA) newly introduced Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020.
Barrister Jahangir Jadoon appeared in the court on behalf of the PUFJ and argued that the social media rules have been challenged in accordance with the Constitution.
“Instead of consulting with the stakeholders, the PTA made the rules and presented them in the court. These rules are unconstitutional and should be repealed immediately,” he maintained.
Deputy Attorney General Syed Tayyab Shah told the court that the Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Javed Khan wanted to appear in person to present his arguments. He requested the court to grant them some time.
The court asked Shah who the relevant stakeholders of the social media rules are and whether they were consulted or not before drafting the rules.
“This is public interest litigation. Rules have been broadened to such a degree that there is a chance of their misuse even in case of criticism against a government servant. The Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution cannot be violated,” the judge noted.
The court observed that the rules made by the PTA should be sent to all the stakeholders. Send the rules to all stakeholders for a meaningful dialogue, he added.
Later the IHC accepted the deputy attorney general's request and adjourned the case till January 25.The petitioners challenged the rules through the Journalist Defense Committee of the Pakistan Bar Council.
The Awami Workers Party and a private citizen, Ashfaq Jutt, are also petitioners in the case. They were respectively represented by Advocate Haider Imtiaz and Advocate Osama Khawar. The PTA’s counsel Ahmar Bilal Sufi will present his argument at the next hearing.
'Criticism essential for democracy'
Earlier, the IHC raised questions over the government’s new social media rules, observing that criticism was essential for democracy and discouraging it would be detrimental for the country.
The government approved the social media rules last month despite criticism from human rights activists and organizations. A national coordinator will be appointed under the new regulations for coordinating with stakeholders to regulate online systems.
One of the new rules requires a social media company to remove, suspend or disable access to any online content within 24 hours, and in emergency situations, within six hours, after being asked by the authority.
Last month, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) – including tech giants Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Twitter – released a statement in which it condemned the rules.
“The AIC and its member companies are alarmed by the scope of Pakistan’s new law targeting internet companies, as well as the government’s opaque process by which these rules were developed,” the statement read.
It said the rules will be damaging for Pakistan's digital economy. The AIC members may have to discontinue their services in Pakistan due to the new rules which go against prevailing human rights norms worldwide, it added.