Islamabad, April 14, 2013: To challenge rampant censorship, surveillance and Internet filtering in the country, taking the legal route, Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan in collaboration with Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) through their pro bono legal counsel Mr. Yasser Latif Hamdani lodged a writ petition in Lahore High Court in January 2013. As per the petition, B4A prayed that the bans imposed on different websites were in blatant violation of the civil and political rights, especially to the Freedom of Expression and the Right to Information under Article-19 and Article-19A of the Constitution of Pakistan.
The petition received its fourth hearing on 12th April, 2013 at the court of Honorable Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah. A summary update of the proceedings is as follows:
Bytes for All Pakistan v. Federation of Pakistan Case was called three times during the day. First, at 8:35 am, again at 2:00 pm (when the rest of the list was cancelled on account of a full bench hearing, only with the exception of Youtube Case), and finally at 6 p.m., when the hearing lasted for over an hour and a half ending at 7:40 p.m.
The counsel was invited to briefly re-state the facts on the case, which he did, essentially arguing all the fundamental rights listed in the background section of the Petition. The counsel informed the judge that the petitioner's case was fundamentally bigger than mere a question of whether Google and Ministry of Interior will sign a country specific agreement on the functioning of Youtube in Pakistan.
The counsel explained that how banning Youtube for “Innocence of Islam” film did not achieve anything and the onus on the government to show the glory of Islam was not helped by this action.
The Deputy Attorney General (DAG) representing both Respondents to the petition - the Ministry of Interior and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) - spoke next. He started with raising objections about the maintainability of the writ petition by arguing that B4A should have made the Ministry of Information Technology a party. Honorable Judge overruled this objection saying that this being a public interest petition is not subject to spurious technical objections and ordered Ministry of IT to be put on notice. DAG contradicted himself, when he said that it was Ministry of Interior and not Ministry of IT that had banned Youtube. Afterwards, DAG referred to the Supreme Court orders regarding the banning of offensive materials on Facebook. The Judge pointed out that the order was specific relating to offensive materials. The DAG then went on claiming that banning URLs slows down the Internet.
DAG presented a letter from PTA to the Inter-ministerial Committee, which had recommended banning of Youtube as a whole because URL banning was cumbersome. The Judge seemingly was not satisfied with that answer. Then, the DAG presented an order by the Inter-Ministerial Committee, which had called for banning of Youtube and Facebook at IP Level dated 17 September 2012.
Before ending his submissions, the learned DAG launched a virulent attack on the Petitioner (Bytes for All, Pakistan) and the Petitioner's Counsel for writing in particular Paragraph 11 of the Writ Petition. He read out the paragraph and said that it was both treasonous and in contempt to which the judge did not agree. The DAG then referred to the “Letter of Allegation
” by Bytes for All & Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) sent to Mr. Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
. DAG was of the opinion that the petition must be dismissed because the Petitioner had gone to the UN Human Rights Council and instead contempt proceedings should be initiated against the Petitioner and the Petitioner's counsel. However, DAG was promptly reminded that it was the right of every citizen to go to whatever forum, they so desire for redressal of their grievances.
The Honorable Court had appointed four Amicus Curaie
on April 4, 2013. These individuals included Mr. Saroop Ijaz, Mr. Babar Sattar, Ms. Farieha Aziz and Prof. Ossama Siddique, out of which Mr. Babar Sattar had excused himself. Ms. Farieha Aziz was invited to speak first.
Ms. Aziz presented her arguments, which were essentially to the effect that Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT)
would not apply so long as there are no corresponding provisions of law under the US law, and countered the DAG's argument that banning specific URLs can slow down the Internet. She also asked the question that who decides ultimately, what is good and what is bad - a point directly endorsing the Petition. The Judge then asked her to comment on the Inter-Ministerial Committee letter calling for the ban on Youtube at IP Level. B4A’s consul was also invited to the rostrum to inspect the letter and he pointed out that the reference to IP level could not mean anything but specific URLs.
Next the indefatigable, Mr. Saroop Ijaz was called upon by the court as the Amicus Curaie. Mr. Ijaz's argument was that the onus of proof for proving the violation of the claw back provisions of Article 19 and other fundamental rights, when there is no relatable law must be with the state. He also endorsed the B4A petition.
B4A’s consul was then called back to the rostrum and taking the opportunity he pressed forward and prayed the honorable judge that an interim relief to the effect that Youtube may be unblocked immediately.
The honorable judge announced the next date of hearing i.e. 26th April 2013 and then issued notices to the Ministry of IT and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the issue of MLAT and other agreements. He also directed the PTA technical team to be present at the next hearing.
Meanwhile, PTA has submitted a soft copy list of all blocked websites to the court. So far as Prayer 1 of the petition is concerned, B4A is successful to finally retrieve this list. As soon as granted permission by the honorable court, the list will be published by Bytes for All, Pakistan.
Bytes for All will continue its humble efforts and hope that digital communications channels will be unblocked in Pakistan very soon by the honorable court of law.
About Bytes for All, Pakistan
Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan is a human rights organization and a network of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals and practitioners. It experiments and organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening social justice movements in the country. Its mission is “ICTs for development, democracy and social justice”. www.bytesforall.pk
For more information (and please note the change in the office address):
Bytes for All, Pakistan
House 273, Street 17, Sector F- 10/2, Islamabad, Pakistan
Cell. +92 51 2110494-95