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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Government can suspend mobile phone services, SC

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has allowed the PTA to suspend mobile phone services under ‘special circumstances’. The court warned the international telecom companies not to mock the national interests of the country. However, the court left it for the government to define what constitutes special circumstances.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan Tuesday ruled that the government can suspend cellular services under “special circumstances”. A hearing of the Ministry of Information and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) petitions against mobile phone companies was held at the apex court where the court said that the government can suspend mobile phone services.

PTA suspends mobile phone services on specific occasions to ensure public order remains undisrupted. For example, last year it suspended the services on the 9th and 10th of Muharram for security reasons in specified areas of all the cities across the country.

A notification issued by the interior ministry without naming localities, said that cellular services in all the cities across Pakistan would be suspended in the areas identified and indicated by the district administrations and the police in their respective cities for the safety of mourners during processions.

In the instant case, the apex court decided that the government can suspend cellular services under special circumstances and ordered the PTA and the IT ministry to come up with relevant SOPs and procedures to do so.

Read More: The emerging National Security Challenges for Pakistan

A division bench of the apex court led by Justice Bandial on April 22 set aside the IHC judgment which struck down the policy directive dated 26.12.2009 published by the Ministry of Information Technology (IT and Telecom Division) under Section 8(2)(c) of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act 1996.

Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah in his February 26, 2018 verdict had declared the suspension of mobile phone services on the pretext of “security concerns” illegal.

“These protective measures are taken on the request of law enforcement authorities in view of past experience of terrorist activities at similar events. If such events caused the issuance of the impugned directions then the same would be in the public interest, reasonable, fair, consistent with the object of the law and therefore valid. Accordingly, the exercise of power by PTA under

the policy directive dated 26.12.2009 ought to be evaluated in the light of the threat that is anticipated,” said a 9-page written judgment authored by Justice Umar Ata Bandial.

“We consider that the impugned judgment has arrived at a hasty and incorrect conclusion. The learned High Court has construed Section 8(2)(c) to be subservient to Section 54(3) of the Act. In reaching this decision, the learned High Court has misread the Act, specifically the provisions of Section 54, all of which serve an express purpose/function. Whilst these purposes/functions may incidentally be effectuated by the exercise of power under Section 8(2)(c) of the Act but this does not lead to the conclusion that Section 54 ibid controls the exercise of such power,” the court noted.

The IHC order said the actions, orders and directives of the federal government or the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) which are inconsistent with the provisions of section 54(3) of the PTA Act 1996 are illegal, ultra vires and without lawful authority and jurisdiction.

“The federal government or the authority are, therefore, not vested with the power and jurisdiction to suspend or cause the suspension of mobile cellular services or operations on the ground of national security except as provided under section 54(3),” the order read.

A division bench of the IHC, however, temporarily suspended the judgment on March 20, 2018 and granted interim stay on an intra-court appeal (ICA) filed by the federal government against Feb 26 order.

Read More: Pakistan’s Senate passes bills to amend Anti-Terrorism Act

The lawyer for a telecom company took the stance that on any occasion the PTA issues directive to terminate the mobile services. If there is a security problem, it should issue instructions to close the service in a specific area, but the PTA directs the service to be closed throughout the city, he said. He said the PTA’s instructions should be justifiable. The service is discontinued if a former prime minister returns from London or is being taken to jail.