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Social media policy: IHC issues notice to government & others

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday issued notice to the federation and the ministries of law, and information and technology, in a petition challenging the government's social media policy.

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday issued notice to the federation and the ministries of law, and information and technology, in a petition challenging the government's social media policy.
A single bench of IHC comprising Chief Justice Athar Minallah heard the petition of Raja Ahsan Masood and directed the office to club the plea with an ongoing case pertaining to media and the scope of Articles 19 and 19 (a) of the Constitution.
After issuing the directions, the IHC bench adjourned the hearing until March 7th.
A divisional bench of the IHC had already disapproved on-air discussions of sub-judice matters in a contempt case against talk show hosts for implying that a "deal" had been made to accommodate former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's bail plea.
During the hearing, Jahangir Khan Jadoon, representing the petitioner, maintained that the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, violated Articles 19 and 19 (a) of the Constitution.
He termed it as an attempt by the government to stifle dissent and free speech.
Justice Athar noted that most countries in the world had social media regulatory legislations.
Jadoon contended that the incumbent government's policy empowered a national coordinator with more authority than even the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
"The coordinator can slap fines up to Rs500 million," he informed the bench.
The counsel sought details of the criteria set for the appointment of the coordinator.
Jadoon also lamented that the stakeholders were not consulted by the government before drafting of the rules.
The IHC CJ observed that Prime Minister Imran Khan had already said that the government was revisiting the social media rules.
To which, Jadoon requested the high court to seek a status report from the relevant authorities.
The bench then issued notice to the federal government and the ministries of law and IT and clubbed the petition with a case on media regulation.
The rules approved by the federal cabinet to regulate social media were challenged in the petition moved by a citizen named Raja Ahsan Masood who prayed before the court that the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, should be struck down as they were in violation of the Constitution.
"The main objective of the impugned rules seems to be to control the social media though indirect control by the government and ruling party," read the petition.
The petitioner maintained that the rules were in violation of Article 19 of the Constitution and relevant article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
He also said that they violated Article 4 of the Constitution that ensured a person's protection under law and also Article 19A under which citizens had the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance. The petition said, "Undemocratic societies try to limit, manipulate, discredit, demonise or otherwise control free speech and to prevent dissemination of ideas or opinions that might threaten their narrative."
It added, "To control the flow of information in any form, whether it is social media, print media or electronic media, is a favourite tool of dictatorships, and [is] the essence of tyranny."
The petitioner maintained that the government had "secretly" approved the rules, which were against the basic and fundamental rights to information.
The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, requires all social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to register within three months and establish their offices in Islamabad.
They will have to create a data server in Pakistan within a year and block any account or prevent or remove any content that "violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan" and is "involved in spreading of fake news or defamation".

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020