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.
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.
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.