IT caused confusion and consternation when it first occurred over a year ago: on the eve of Eid, mobile phone subscribers found services inexplicably suspended. Later, it emerged that the interior ministry had made the recommendation, citing a potential terrorist threat.
By now, though, the level of outrage has come down —there is just resignation in a country with over 129 million mobile phone subscriptions and five network operators. The tactic has been used with increasing frequency, most recently on Dec 24, Imam Husain’s Chehlum.
Former interior minister Rehman Malik spoke frequently about his faith in the efficacy of network suspensions; on Dec 25, he tweeted: “Interior minister took the right decision to block … saved many lives”. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who now occupies this office, has not shied away from resorting to it.
Terrorists and criminals use mobile phones to communicate, and to trigger IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Disrupting their activities is necessary. But against this must be placed the enormous inconvenience and monetary loss borne by the citizenry.
Disrupted communications might pre-empt mob rage or terrorist activity or minimise their effects. Yet several incidents of violence raise questions. On Sept 21 last year, for example, the country saw protests against a hate film and the mobile phone network was suspended in 15 cities. High levels of violence and destruction occurred nevertheless.
“People have started turning to alternatives such as Viber, Tango, WhatsApp etc,” says Additional Inspector General Shahid Hayat, the Karachi police chief. “Cellphones are switched off mainly to prevent remote-operated IED attacks.”
It cannot be said with certainty, though, how many hits have been averted in this way. AIGP Hayat says that there have been some cases where people have confessed that they didn’t have the enabling environment to carry out their malicious intent.
Perhaps the only case in which disruption of the mobile phone signal definitely prevented disaster was the December 2003 attack on Pervez Musharraf’s convoy in Rawalpindi, which was accompanied by a mobile phone jamming device.
If jammers are effective, why impose network shutdowns on entire cities? The Karachi police chief says that jammers are used and “they are effective, but in a very targeted manner. The stragglers in a 1km-long procession cannot be covered by jammers”.
On Dec 24, notwithstanding the network suspension, a bomb exploded outside an imambargah in Orangi Town, killing four people. Ultimately, says AIGP Hayat, “more effective solutions need to be found”.
Against this, consider the cost levied on the people. Not only is there the problem of getting in touch with friends and family, or calling the police or an ambulance, incomes and businesses, too, are affected.
Mohammed Shahid, for example, is an electrician in Karachi who earns Rs18-20,000 a month. His shop has no landline, and he says that on days when the cellular network is suspended, his workload falls by 90pc.
This writer spoke to several people in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and all told a similar story.
Meanwhile, the telecom industry says that each day’s shutdown means the loss of nearly Rs1 billion. Atifa Asghar, director of corporate communications and responsibility, Telenor Pakistan, says that “the suspension of service … is ultra vires to the provisions of the Telecom Act and also against the licensing agreement”. Acknowledging that the company is “mindful of the security situation”, she adds that while it extends all possible support to the government, “network suspension should be the last option. … In case of extreme security threats at certain locations, whenever needed and if unavoidable then mobile services should be suspended only at specific high-threat locations instead of a blanket shutdown”.
To many it feels as though the government is taking the easy way out. Criminals and violent extremists have time and again demonstrated their ability to upgrade technologically; the state needs to follow suit. This tactic takes the suspension of liberties in the name of security in a dangerous direction.