Some Disclosure At Last

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On December 12, 2014, Bolo Bhi filed a petition challenging the legality of the IMCEW. On December 15, our petition came up for a preliminary hearing before Justice Athar Minallah at the Islamabad High Court. 

[Read details of hearing and petition here]

Two documents obtained through our freedom of information requests were brought to the court’s notice. The first was an August 2006 notification that set-up the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW). According to the notification, the IMCEW was created for the “formalization of procedure for blocking of websites (URLs).” On paper, the committee comprises of the following:

– Secretary IT (Convener)

– Nominee of Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (Member)

– Nominee of Ministry of Interior (Member)

– Nominee of Cabinet Division (Member)

– Telecom Expert for Ministry of IT (Member)

– Nominee of ISI (Member)

Through the notification, the committee was tasked to do the following:

– Formalize a procedure

– Evaluate/examine materials and requests for blocking of ‘offensive, obnoxious, objectionable’ websites & URLs

– Finalize TOR, procedure & mechanism to examine requests

[Read 2006 notification here]

Then, in May 2012, the Ministry issued a directive to the PTA to do the following:

“Establish…a dedicated unit while allocating funds/budget and human resources, supported by state of art technical solutions and upgraded call center with the mandate to take requisite measures for proactively and independently blocking websites displaying pornographic and blasphemous content.” 

[Read 2012 notification here]

While the 2012 notification states “the focus of this system shall remain ‘blasphemous and pornographic content,'” and that “any system procured” should not “interfere with the rights of citizens as envisioned by the Objectives Resolution and Article 19 and 31 of the Constitution of Pakistan” or “misused for political gains,” the procurement and application to date have done the exact opposite.  

In our petition, we argue that the executive has no authority – not the prime minister, not anyone – to set up a committee. Neither does such a committee have the mandate to further empower other organizations to block or restrict content. For us, the IMCEW does not meet requirements criteria as laid out per law and thus stands in violation of the law and Constitution.

Issuing notices to the respondents (i.e. PTA and MoITT), Justice Athar Minallah observed:

“It appears to this court that the notification dated 29.09.2006 and the Policy Directive date 25.05.2012 are, inter alia, in violation of Article 19-A of the Constitution. Moreover the respondents have to explain as under what law they are exercising the powers of blocking websites.” 

In light of this observation, the honourable judge approved our stay order application, restraining the IMCEW from issuing directives without the court’s permission, and ordered the respondents to present a list of blocked websites including minutes of meetings when the decisions were taken, for the last three years. This, they were to do in a fortnight. 

[Read court order here]

Today, it has been two weeks to our hearing and we await to see what the respondents have to say.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based, APNS-awardwinning journalist. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi. She has a masters in English literature. She worked with Newsline from July 2007-January 2012 and taught literature to grades 9-12. She served as an amicus curiae in a case filed in the Lahore High Court in 2013, challenging the ban on YouTube, and is currently a petitioner on behalf of Bolo Bhi in a case filed in the Islamabad High Court challenging government's censorship on the Internet and the powers of the regulator. She can be found on Twitter: @FariehaAziz and reached via email: farieha@bolobhi.org

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