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

A single bench of the IHC comprising Chief Justice of IHC Justice Athar Minallah conducted hearing of the petition and also directed to club the plea with an ongoing case pertaining to media and the scope of Article 19 and 19 (a) of the Constitution. After issuing the aforementioned directions, the IHC bench deferred hearing till March 7 in this matter.

Earlier, a divisional bench of IHC had 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 Nawaz Sharif’s bail plea.

During the hearing, the petitioner’s counsel Jahangir Khan Jadoon maintained that the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 violated Article 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 have 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. He 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.

Then, the bench issued notice to the federal government and 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 to 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 Article 19 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 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.”

SC seeks NAB’s reply in Khawaja brothers’ bail petitions

The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Monday issued notice to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to file its reply in Khawaja brothers’ bail petitions.

A three-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Maqbool Baqir and comprising Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Muneeb Akhtar heard former Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique and his brother Salman Rafique appeal against the Lahore High Court order.

Saad’s counsel submitted that so far the NAB was unable to establish allegations his client and Khawaja Salman Rafique despite the fact the case has been pending since 2018.

Khawaja brothers moved the SC after the Lahore High Court (LHC) had rejected their bail in corruption case. A two-member bench of the court headed by Justice Baqir Ali Najfi had pronounced the reserved verdict in the pleas.

According to the NAB, Khawaja Saad Rafique in collusion with his wife Ghazala Saad Rafique Butt, his brother Salman Rafique, Qaiser Amin Butt and Nadeem Zia had launched a housing project named Air Avenue, which was later renamed as Paragon City (Pvt) Ltd.

The accused allegedly connived with Nadeem Zia and Qaiser Amin Butt to defraud several members of the society and misappropriated project funds for personal gains. The accused collected huge amounts in flagrant violation of directions from the Lahore Development Authority (LDA). Besides, Saad Rafique acquired 40 kanals of land in his and his brother’s names, which he used to extend the project illegally and sold commercial plots worth billions of rupees.