ISLAMABAD - The Islamabad High Court on Monday expressed satisfaction over measures taken by the government departments for the removal of blasphemous content from the social media, as it learned that Facebook has removed 85 percent of objectionable material on Pakistan’s request.

The court however expressed displeasure over the performance of the Ministry of Information and Technology in this matter, asking State Minister Ausha Rehman to appear in person and explain their position.

A single bench comprising Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui is hearing contempt of court plea for not complying with the court orders about blocking pages or websites containing blasphemous material on the social media.

Interior Secretary Arif Ahmed Khan submitted before the court a letter of the vice president of Global Public Policy Facebook to Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, showing showed their willingness to remove content deemed blasphemous.

He informed the court that the social media giant is blocking blasphemous content on Islamabad’s request and it has already removed 85 percent of such material from the website.

The IHC bench directed the government machinery to proactively pursue this issue without any fear or pressure from “Laltain or Moom-Batti”, a reference to liberal NGOs and activists, some of whom have accused the IHC judge of seeking fame through playing beyond the legal contours on a sensitive issue.

The liberal forces in the country also fear the authorities would use this issue to scuttle the basic right of freedom of speech of the citizens and deepen the atmosphere of fear in the country, which is already besieged by religious extremism, through launching a witch-hunt.

The court in its order said that report regarding once missing and then resurfacing bloggers had still not been presented. It also sought report about the NGOs, which focus on such matters, and directed the respondent to do the needful by the next hearing.

A director of the Federal Investigation Agency told the court about the clampdown against individuals posting profane material. He said that three arrests had been made so far, out of which two people were directly involved in posting blasphemous content.

Justice Siddiqui said the court will not intervene in the investigations. He said that the FIA should take action at all complaints but bear in mind that no innocent person should be grilled.

Interior Secretary Arif Khan informed the court about the meeting of ambassadors from Muslim majority countries on March 22, 2017 in the context of evolving a joint strategy to counter blasphemy on the Internet. He also said that a joint investigation team has been formed to probe the matter.

Justice Siddiqui hailed the step to call the meeting of ambassadors but asked, “Why was the ambassador of the country [US] where this activity actually took place, not invited?”

The secretary responded, “Pakistani embassy in Washington [had] raised the issue.”

The interior secretary also informed the court about the other government efforts for deletion of blasphemous content on social media. He said that besides Facebook, most of the blasphemous content on other social networking sites has also been deleted or blocked. He said that only 10 to 15 percent of such content remains on social media.

The court expressed satisfaction with the progress made by the institutions concerned in this regard, and demanded a progress report on the amendments to the Electronic Crimes Act.

The secretary however argued before the court that internet was a vast medium and closure of social media websites like Facebook was not a solution to the problem.

The judge asked that if social media “waged a war against us, what remedy do we have; where is our information technology wing?”

The bench observed that ministries of Interior and Information did a commendable job but MIT had not been working properly.

“Where are our IT experts and the minister for religious affairs? The government has left the entire job to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan,” he remarked.

The IHC bench observed that why the Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman has not been letting the PECA 2016 amended. “Will the minister [come in person and] tell the court and explained her position?” he asked.

The bench noted in the order, “Ministry of Information Technology is behaving like a silent spectator – having no mechanism to deal with the issue and visionary approach with regard to steps to be taken.”

Justice Siddiqui also expressed his disappointment over the ability of the state machinery to deal with this issue and wrote in the verdict, “When this court inquired from all the officials in attendance that what are the preventive measures against the war waged through social media, unfortunately no satisfactory answer came from any of the officers.

“The top leadership of the country needs to become proactive on the issue for raising national firewall, enabling Pakistan to monitor Pakistan’s internet traffic and all the users.”

The attorney-general of Pakistan could not appear before the court at which the IHC bench said that the attorney-general may appear on the next date of hearing.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Chairman Ismail Shah told the court that they had deputed 25-person team to search for such content on the social media.

He requested the court not to close Facebook as it provided them with clues.

PTA chairman said that the Facebook removed blasphemous content that was good development and 40 pages on Facebook had been blocked, while they had written a letter for the closure of 23 other.

He told the court that the public could contact the PTA in case they saw any blasphemous content on the social media.

PTA chairman said, “The issue does not pertain to a single institution. Instead, all the institutions will have to work in sync toward this end.”

Justice Siddiqui appreciated the development and adjourned hearing of the case until March 31.

He directed the respondents to proceed in this matter step-by-step and first utilise the forum of the OIC and then go for the United Nations.

Separately, law enforcement agencies have blocked 937 Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) and 10 websites of proscribed organisations over abuse of Internet and social media. The agencies concerned also sealed 70 shops and confiscated 5,141 equipment.