IHC seeks govt’s reply on plea against new social media laws

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Serving notices on the federation over recently drafted laws for social media regulation, Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday sought reply in the matter from the government within 14 days.

Invoking jurisdiction of the IHC on behalf of Advocate Raja Ahsan Mahmood Satti in the matter on February 22, Barrister Jahagir Khan Jadoon has challenged Social Media Rules 2020 while making secretaries cabinet division, information technology, information and broadcasting, law and justice and chairman Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) as respondents.

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Appearing before single member bench of the IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Monday, Jadoon alleged that the government is trying to stifle a citizen’s right to freedom of speech through the challenged law.

Responding to remarks of the Chief Justice Athar Minallah that such regulations are placed all over the world, Barrister Jadoon claimed the government is trying to control the social media through the regulations.

Jadoon urged the court to serve notices on the government for updated status of the rules. The petitioner’s counsel apprised the court that under the draft rules, the government is planning to appoint a national coordinator to implement the Social Media Rules 2020.

Jadoon alleged that under the law, the coordinator has been given more powers than the authority itself, saying that according to the rules, the coordinator can impose a fine up to Rs 500 million on an individual if found guilty to violate the rules.

Seeking stay order in the matter, Jadoon termed the social media rules as contradictory to Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution.

After hearing arguments of the petitioner’s counsel, the court granted 14 days to respondents to submit reply.

After issuing notices to the concerned parties, the bench turned down the plea seeking stay order in the matter.

It is pertinent to mention that federal cabinet on February 12 approved a new set of rules to regulate social media, requiring companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even TikTok to register themselves and open offices in Pakistan. The approval has led proponents of internet freedom worry that the legal document would be used to keep social media companies in check.

The rules and regulations have been included in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and senior officials of the Ministry of Information Technology have been reported to confirm that the cabinet has given green signal to the instrument.

Besides, Federal Secretary IT & Telecommunication Shoaib Siddiqui has been reported to confirm that after the cabinet’s approval, the rules and regulations require no presentation in the Parliament for approval.

Once the law is in the field, all global social media platforms and companies would have to get registered in territorial limitation of Pakistan within three months and open offices in Islamabad within the same period.

As per reports, the law requires digital media companies to appoint a representative in Pakistan to deal with a national coordination authority, which would be responsible to regulate content on social media platforms.

It further requires the companies to set up data servers in Pakistan within a year and makes it compulsory for them to provide data of accounts found guilty of various crimes – including targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, engaging in harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content – to intelligence and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

Authorities would, therefore, take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions at home and abroad on social media. The law would also help the law enforcement authorities obtain access to data of accounts found involved in suspicious activities.

It would be the said authority’s prerogative to identify objectionable contents to the social media platforms to be taken down. In case of failure to comply within 15 days, it would have the power to suspend their services or impose a fine worth up to Rs 500 million.

The legislation also defines terms such as social media, social media company, law enforcement, and the law in this context. Matters highlighted by the authorities may be taken up in high courts in all four provinces.

It is pertinent to mention that most social media companies are based in Canada and the United States and it is impossible to control content while sitting in Pakistan.

Separately, the Pakistan Railways submitted an inquiry report on the Tezgam inferno incident which claimed the lives of 87 people and injured 40 others in the Islamabad High Court (IHC).

The report compiled by the railways’ federal inspector states that of the total deceased, the heirs of 58 people had been provided financial assistance, as ten victims remain untraceable. Those injured in the incident have also been given compensation by the government.

The Pakistan Railways sent the inquiry report to the Minister of Interior on Feb 18, the report said. An FIR was lodged against private individuals who were found “directly/indirectly responsible” for the fire. The Railways Police submitted an interim challan before Punjab Prosecution Cell Ahmad Pur Sharqia on Feb 11. The competent authorities ordered to take action against delinquent officials who are responsible for the incident, the report stated.

On October 31, 87 people had lost their lives and 40 others injured when a fire engulfed three bogies of Tezgam Express due to a reported cylinder explosion near Liaquatpur in Rahim Yar Khan district. The train was on its way from Karachi to Rawalpindi when the unfortunate incident took place.