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ISLAMABAD: Civil society and digital rights watchdogs have expressed concern over suspension of cellular and internet networks in certain areas of the country during general election and demanded of the authorities to ensure uninterrupted access to cellular services for voters, candidates, polling staff, media and observers.

They urged the caretaker prime minister and state authorities to refrain from suspending mobile services on polling day.

Suspension of cellular mobile service and networks on polling day and denying citizens access to communication and information, freedom of expression is a serious violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under articles 16, 19 and 19A, of the Constitution as well as international commitments that will compromise the efforts to ensure free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections, they said while addressing a media conference at a local hotel on Tuesday.

Suspending cellular, Internet service will compromise efforts to ensure free, fair elections, civil society members say

Speakers at the event discussed the legal, constitutional and political aspects of the rights of access to information, and freedom of expression.

They urged the state authorities to enforce the Feb 26, 2018 verdict of the Islamabad High Court declaring suspension of cellular services illegal.

Independent rights watchdog, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Monday in its fact-finding report asked the government to take steps to prevent the curbs on freedom of expression, including the disruption of newspapers and TV channels.

HRCP also reported alleged pressure on cable operators to take certain TV channels off the air or decrease their reach by moving them down the list of channels in Punjab and Gilgit-Baltistan.

“Over a period of time, we have been observing with concern that cellular networks and internet services are disrupted by incumbent governments during law and order situations,” journalist and HRCP representative Marvi Sirmed said.

Media reports suggest that Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has already shut down networks and cellular services in six districts of Balochistan, the tribal districts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and GB on the pretext of security, disconnecting over 2.8 million people from the rest of the world and depriving them of access to information, she added.

“If [cellular service is disrupted on polling day],it will make the whole election process questionable, jeopardise the security of the voters, candidates and polling staff in case of any untoward incident, and have serious implications on the conduct of elections,” she said.

Speakers recommended opening all communications and channels in the tribal districts of KP and six districts of Balochistan and GB.

They also recommended a multi-stakeholder oversight mechanism to review shutdown requests by authorities and objectionable material on social media, the unblocking of Awami Workers Party’s official website and ensuring access to emergency services.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2018