Under the garb of ‘national security’: Does the mobile service ban infringe upon our rights?

Published: November 24, 2012
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The Express Tribune investigates who pulls the plug, why, and under what legal cover.

The Express Tribune investigates who pulls the plug, why, and under what legal cover.

ISLAMABAD / KARACHI: 

On the pretext of security, the government has suspended cellular services in large parts of the country five times over the last few months.

Whether the move helped stave off terror incidents is not clear, but the blanket bans have elicited a barrage of criticism over the government’s ad-hoc approach to counter-terrorism.

The first instance of mobile service suspension was in Quetta on March 23, 2012, on the request of Balochistan Home Department, and ordered by Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

Since then, mobile services have been suspended in various cities on Eidul Fitr, Independence Day, Love for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Day, Eidul Azha, and Ashura.

Who pulls the plug on cellular service, why, and under what legal provisions? Does the move not infringe upon citizens’ right to information, enshrined in the Constitution?

Who pulls the plug, and why?

Government officials talking to The Express Tribune said mobile phones are the only source for terrorists to set off bombs.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik, on Friday, claimed that 90% of blasts were carried out through mobile phones.

Without cellular services, terrorists are unable to coordinate, and therefore cannot strike their targets, government officials added.

Recommendations for mobile service bans are prepared by provincial home departments and two subsidiaries of the interior ministry – the National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) and the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA).

While the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) deal with the suspension, the interior ministry is the ultimate authority that orders the move.

Under what cover?

The government uses the legal cover of Section 54(2) of the Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-Organisation) Act, 1996 to ban cellular services, according to the lawyer of a foreign cellular service provider, which has taken the government to court over the matter.

The company filed a petition earlier this week in the Sindh High Court (SHC), against the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

The company’s lawyer Aijaz Ahmed argued that the IT ministry has notified service suspension in the name of ‘national security’ under Section 54(2) of the act which states that “during a war or hostilities against Pakistan by any foreign power or internal aggression or for the defence or security of Pakistan, the federal government shall have preference and priority in telecommunication system over any licensee.”

“Cellular services can only be suspended by exercising powers described in Section 54(3) of the Act, subject to imposition of emergency in the country by the president,” the lawyer said.

Section 54(3) states that “upon proclamation of emergency by the president, the federal government may suspend or modify all or any order or licences made or issued under this Act or cause suspension of operation, functions or services of any licensee for such time as it may deem necessary.”

The petitioner’s lawyer has insisted that service suspensions in the past have been “irrational,” and a violation of the rights of the company protected under the articles 4, 18, 23 and 24 of the Constitution, since the president had not declared a state of emergency on any of the occasions on which cellular services were suspended.

Financial compensation

The company has asked the court to order the ministry and PTA to compensate it for the losses suffered on account of service suspension since subsection 54(3) of the act allows for service suspension, “provided that the federal government may compensate any licensee whose facilities or services are affected by any action under this sub-section.”

The authorities should be bound to also compensate the company in future, if its services are suspended, the lawyer said, although the petitioner did not give the details of losses.

Representatives of another foreign cellular company told The Express Tribune that the telecom industry reportedly faced damages upwards of Rs1 billion due to the suspension.

The representatives added that two months ago, they wrote a letter to the government via the regulator PTA, requesting compensation of Rs1 billion (Rs500 million for each suspension).

Owners of cellular companies, however, refused to comment on the issue.

After initial hearing of the petition on November 19, the SHC bench, headed by Justice Faisal Arab, issued notices to the IT ministry and Chairman PTA for November 22 but the case did not come up for hearing on that date.

This is not the first time the government has been taken to court over the suspension.

Earlier, on October 25, the SHC had restrained the interior ministry from suspending cellular services in the country on the occasion of Eidul Azha “unless it is absolutely inevitable.”

The order was passed on a petition filed by a lawyer, Tahir Pervez. The petition was disposed of by the court but the judges had observed that interpretation of the Section 54 of the PTA Act, 1996 would be done in separate proceedings.

Reactions

The move has been deemed controversial at best, even by the government’s allies.

“The decision to suspend [mobile phone] services has mixed blessings,” said former interior secretary Tasneem Noorani.

However, the government should improve its intelligence and suspend services in targeted areas only, rather than disturb entire cities, he added.

A paradigm shift is needed to review existing security rules in light of the technologies that terrorists are using for their purposes, Noorani added.

MNA Kashmala Tariq of the government allied Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid said she has never come across instances of cellular service suspension in other countries.

“It is total failure [on the part of] the government. It has failed to control the worsening law and order situation, and that is why it is using such tactics,” she said.

Despite repeated requests, head of NCMC Brig (retd) Javed Lodhi, Interior Secretary Sadiq Akbar and PTA Chairman Farooq Awan did not respond to queries related to the issue.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2012. 

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Syed A. Mateen
    Nov 24, 2012 - 10:37AM

    The continuous deterioration of law and order situation in the country does not permit that cell phones should be used during the peak period of Moharram.

    The cellular phone companies right from the very beginning did not bother to check the credentials to whom they are selling the SIM Cards and furthermore the cellular companies sold more than one SIM Card to an individual.

    The PTA did not made a comprehensive policy while giving licenses to cellular phone companies and this is one of the reasons that cellular SIM Cards were sold in the open market similarly as if sweets are distributed to the general public without any cost.

    Now every Tom, Dick and Harry is having more than 10 SIM Cards which were officially allowed to be sold to the people.

    In developed countries, only one SIM Card is sold to an individual at a time and that too after proper verification of the customer and his credentials.

    Pakistan being new in the cellular technology did not made adequate arrangements that cellular SIM Cards should not go in the hands of bad guys but they did.

    Illegally obtained SIM Cards are one of the basic and fundamental reason that has enhanced terrorism in the country.

    To save the precious human lives, if the Government has shut down the cellular phone net work, I have no problem in it, as first of all the Government has announced holidays starting from 8th of Moharram till the 10th and secondly being a law abiding citizen of Pakistan it is my duty to cooperate with the government so as to save the precious human lives of the innocent people of Pakistan who are being killed every now and then by the extremists and terrorists in the country.

    People who object on shutting down the cellular phone should think for a while that what happens to a family where one of their loved one is killed by the terrorists. Only the affect family knows the consequences and not those who remain safe and sound.

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  • A J Khan
    Nov 24, 2012 - 10:50AM

    There were no mobile phones just few years back. So does that mean that citizens’ right to information, enshrined in the Constitution ware not given to them? Is it the mobile phone which ensures this right?
    A critical analysis will lead us to the conclusion that we waste billions of Rupees every day on talking on mobile phone. This money is than taken out of the country by the mobile companies in form of $s. Such waste can be ill afforded by poor country like ours.
    There is need to limit the use of mobile phone and issue of sims. The laws such made further stringent. The blood of innocent people of Pakistan and their hard earnings are more important than the revenues of these fat mobile companies.Recommend

  • Clear Black Bag
    Nov 24, 2012 - 11:36AM

    No doubt and definitely mobile phones’ service blockade is infringe upon every one’s rights and interference in every man’s personal life’s matters….
    Are mobile phones only the resources of spreading terrorism in Pakistan and can the other technologies not be used for the purposes of spreading and increasing terrorism and why mobiles were not the resources of terrorism and strong hands of the terrorists 4 years ago and only now why have been????

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  • Gulzar Kandrani
    Nov 24, 2012 - 11:43AM

    Syed A. [email protected]
    Dear you may not be in very areas where cellular services are suspended and motorcycling is banned which is solely mean of transport. When you don’t suffer you cannot measure the gravity of problems and easily support this irrational measure made by incumbent government.

    Despite suspensions of cellular services Bomb went off in Dera Ismail Khan, so it shows this measure serves no purpose but perturbing the lives of ordinary persons. Such irrational measures shows utter failure of government. Moreover such steps disgraced Interior Ministry and its ruling government.

    Dear, wearer knows where shoe pinches. Trucks, Donkeys, Children, young men & women are also used as an apparatus for carrying out terror activities so should they also be banned????

    Anyhow, it is not solution to the problems and steps like this can bear no fruits to check terror incidents (proved fruitless) rather it is causing severe disturbance to the life of middle class which is already under the ban of ” Pillion Ridding”.

    Nevertheless, thanks to ET, Zahid Gishkori / Naeem Sahoutara for bringing more information to the masses via ET forum.

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  • Mani
    Nov 24, 2012 - 11:47AM

    @Syed A. Mateen:

    Yes the regulator didnt do the job and telecom operators in the numbers game went overboard in selling SIMs without proper documentation, but your claim about one SIM per individual is not correct globally multiple SIMS are allowed but with proper documentation.

    Secondly, if SIMS are the only reason for terrorism then what about the 500,000 weapon licenses, the unlicensed number of weapons is countless, the failure of security apparatus and to save lifes why cant they invest in education, invest in healthcare and do something about the mindset of the madarassas that promote such hatred, why not ban, prosecute and execute the hate mongers ???

    Frankly the reason for this outage is blackmail by the Govt, as this a $5 billion dollar industry from where they cannot get money at will, give away jobs to their electorate to incompetent nincompoops, they tried to takeover USF but failed, R&D Fund and failed … so this the final attempt to get money before elections … they are expecting a Billion dollars with 3G licenses sale but with such stupid actions they wont get a penny.

    Recommend

  • mohsin
    Nov 24, 2012 - 1:04PM

    overwhelming majority of cell phone subscribers does not need cell phones anyway so business will be as usual without cell phone service and government can save itself from lot of troubles if right of the cell phone service is limited to national tax number holders.

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  • Yas
    Nov 24, 2012 - 2:13PM

    @ Syed A. Mateen

    Your comments are ill informed and you should really research your opinions rather than waking up and typing rubbish off the top of your head.

    Multiple SIMS are available in most countries and very little documentation is needed to get pay as you go phones in countries like USA or UK.
    “Illegally obtained SIM Cards are one of the basic and fundamental reason that has enhanced terrorism in the country.” shows how little you understand the reasons that terrorism has increased in Pakistan – How about the following,
    Poor education, lack of fair political representation, less labour mobility, weak infrastructure
    Bottom line is that having to shut down blanket areas like whole cities is a massive failing on the part of the government to provide law and order in Pakisan. Speach tracking software has become cheaper internationally. Given the amount that our agencies have demanded from international countries under the guise of National Security, we should have implemented better investigative systems in place so as to avoid having to subject ourselves to blanket bans as if we are in the middle ages!
    Recommend

  • Yas
    Nov 24, 2012 - 2:25PM

    @ A J Khan

    My god are you serious. “We waste millions of rupees talking on mobile phone” so its ok to switch off! How about all the economic progress that occurs by our ability to communicate accross vaste distances either via phones or emails. Lack of economic and technological progress are essential reasons for instability in this country. Blanket bans will deter foreign investment in Pakistan which is exactly what this country needs! The profits are not stolen by mobile phone companies but rightfully deserved for services provided!

    Pakistan needs to improve their tax collection systems and root out corruption in FBR etc. so that the profits of well performing countries are adequetly taxed and then fairly redistributed in the form of infrustructure, education and healthcare which is the responsibility of a government! We have a tax to GDP ration in Paistan of around 10%. Developed countried operate at ratios of 30 to 40%. These are things which need to be addressed by embracing technology and encouraging innovation – NOT BY GOING BACK TO THE DARK AGES!!

    Recommend

  • Nahas Basir
    Nov 24, 2012 - 2:32PM

    You have hit the nail on the head!Recommend

  • Nov 24, 2012 - 3:36PM

    mobile phones are evil. Good decision by the govt. Let all religions live in harmony.

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  • Amitabh Bachchan
    Nov 24, 2012 - 6:01PM

    Wat about Internet? Its evil tooo

    Recommend

  • londonistani
    Nov 24, 2012 - 6:34PM

    Saving lives are far more important than your issues of not being able to text your girlfriends…….pun intended.

    Recommend

  • DevilHunterX
    Nov 24, 2012 - 9:52PM

    Terrorists use trains, airplanes, tvs, watches, cars and motorbikes in their terrorists activities too. Let’s ban them too?

    What’s next? We ban clothes, homes, water and food too? You know just to be safe, cause terrorists use those too.

    Recommend

  • Something Clever
    Nov 24, 2012 - 11:07PM

    The people that bomb you want you paranoid, scared and to be an inconvenience every chance they get. They want themselves to be on your mind every day of your lives reminding you they exist.
    They probably find the bans entertaining in some ways because they’re still interfering with your lives with their name attached to it.
    Random bombings aren’t a means to an end. Even they know that. Even if they blew up your government buildings in random bombings it doesn’t result in their actual win where they will assume power. That takes either you handing them the power or a full on offensive seizing the leadership.
    With the banning of things your people enjoy, they’re still giving them satisfactory results. Though I’m sure it puts a small damper on their celebrations after the fact without the kills since that’s their favorite part.

    Recommend

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