Ashfaq Jutt,TikTok kick-boxer Pakistan
Ashfaq Jutt, 34, a kick-boxer and TikTok app user, poses for a photograph in Lahore, Pakistan in this undated handout photograph obtained by Reuters on October 15, 2020. Jutt challenged a ban on the app in Pakistan saying it was affecting his business. Image Credit: Reuters

Islamabad: A week after the Pakistan government banned the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, TikTok, the ban has been challenged in the court and the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has served notices to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the country’s telecom regulator, directing it to explain the move.

The court has also served notices to the Ministry of Information Technology (IT) in this regard.

‘Indecent’ content

The regulator had banned the platform on Oct 9, “in view of complaints and the nature of content being consistently posted on TikTok.”

After the ban, the PTA in a press release claimed that the company had failed to remove “immoral” and “indecent” content from the application.

However, the ban was challenged in the IHC by a Martial Arts trainer, Ashfaq Jutt, who said the ban on the video-sharing app was affecting his business as he was using it to promote his skills.

Violation of fundamental rights

The petition states that PTA’s action of banning the app through a press release violated the mandatory requirement to communicate a formal and speaking order while exercising its power under the Section 37(1) of the Act.

In Thursday’s hearing, the IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah took the regulator to task and while referring to its reply submitted in the court observed: “If we accept your stance for closing down the app, we will have to shut down the entire Internet.”

Who can define morals?

The court also wondered if there was some platform or authority that could define ‘morals’ in the country. The judge reminded the PTA official that the court had already directed the regulator to frame rules to exercise its powers under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, which it had failed to do.

The PTA representative said it gave TikTok “considerable time” to respond to their concerns, but the company “failed to fully comply.”

A recent transparency report shows that authorities asked the application to restrict 40 accounts during the first half of 2020, but the company only restricted two of them.

The court in its short order also directed the PTA chairman to appoint a senior official to appear before the court on Friday and inform what progress has been made with regard to framing PECA rules.

Committee to review implications of ban on online platforms

The court has also appointed a representative of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) Shehzada Zulfiqar, Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) vice-chairman Abid Saqi, journalist Mazhar Abbas and former Information Minister Javed Jabbar to assist the court on matters like banning of online platforms and its implications for freedom of expression and speech and right to access information.

They will also deliberate on the alleged misuse of PECA and submit recommendations how freedom of expression and access to information could be curtailed by PTA on vague criteria such as morality and vulgarity.

The petitioner in his plea held that according to Bloomberg, the app has been installed 43 million times in Pakistan making it the app’s 12th largest market in terms of downloads.