ISLAMABAD: The car­e­taker government suspended mobile phone and data services nationwide on Thursday for election day, despite Pakistan Tele­co­mmunication Auth­o­rity’s earlier assurances of uninterrupted internet access.

Services had still not been restored in vast swathes of the country at the time of going to print.

However, landline internet and social media websites did not face disruptions.

The interior ministry said in a statement that “precious lives have been lost” in recent militant attacks and such “security measures are essential to maintain the law and order situation and to deal with potential threats”.

This decision to block mo­b­ile and internet services not only disrupted citizens’ daily lives but also cast a shadow over the electoral process, with many voters unable to reach or even locate their polling stations.

Voters rely on a text messaging service of the Election Commission to confirm the polling station where they are registered to vote. The unavailability of ride-hailing apps also kept many voters from moving to and from polling stations.

Questions also arose regarding the ability of presiding officers to transmit polling station results via the controversial Election Management System (EMS), given the communication blackout.

However, Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja downplayed the controversy, suggesting that presiding officers could physically deliver Form-45 and other essential documents to the returning officers’ office. These documents could then be uploaded to the EMS and would automatically be forwarded once the internet services were restored, he said.

“I want to clarify that our operations are not reliant on the internet,” Mr Raja said, according to Dawn.com.

NetBlocks, a global internet watchdog, said data confirmed there was a disruption to mobile phone and internet services “corroborating widespread user reports of outages”.

“The ongoing election day internet blackout in Pakistan is amongst the largest we’ve observed in any country in terms of severity and extent,” NetBlocks director Alp Toker told AFP.

“The practice is inherently undemocratic and is known to limit the work of independent election observers and cause irregularities in the voting process.”

Mobile and data services, which were suspended shortly after the start of polling, remained unavailable until late in the night.

A little after 8pm, the interior ministry said on X, formerly Twitter, that mobile phone services “are being gradually restored in different parts of the country”, including in Bhakkar, Sargodha, Taxila, Gujar Khan Chakri, Loralai, Sibi, Jhal Magsi and all of Sindh, except Karachi, where network signals started to appear on mobile screens a little after midnight.

At least two news websites — that of Geo News and Samaa — were unavailable for several hours in the night, showing “Error 503 Backend Fetch Failed” and “Error 404” messages, respectively.

‘Brazen assault on democracy’

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was the first to raise the alarm over the matter. “The mobile services should immediately be restored across the country. Have asked my party to approach both ECP and courts for the purpose,” he tweeted.

Later, speaking to the media in Larkana, he said that the suspension of mobile services would impact voter turnout along with the security of the people if “incidents of violence were to happen”.

PTI’s election correspondence cell in Sindh urged the ECP to restore internet services across the country, saying that it was a “brazen assault on democracy”.

In a letter to CEC Raja, PTI’s election cell head Barrister Ali Tahir said the internet shutdown raised “serious doubts about the ECP’s commitment to fulfilling its constitutional duties”.

“The pretexts provided by the Pakistan Telecommunication Auth­ority (PTA) for these internet blackouts are both flimsy and inadequate,” he asserted.

PTI leader Hammad Azhar also questioned the failure to restore phone networks. “Which security situation is in danger now?” he asked in a social media post.

Jamaat-i-Islami leader Hafiz Naeemur Rehman expressed serious concerns about communication disruptions due to the shutdown of mobile services and accused the government of paralysing the communication system on the day of the election.

Independent candidate Jibran Nasir said the government has “robbed voters and political parties — specifically PTI and candidates — of their rights by shutting down mobile services across the country.”

“The power brokers are not only against our freedom of expression but also our right to information,” he said. “Anything which empowers the people is despised by the ruling class.”

Nighat Dad, a lawyer who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation, said the outage of mobile and internet services “is an attack on the democratic rights of Pakistanis”.

“Shutting down mobile phone services is not a solution to national security concerns. If you shut down access to information, you create more chaos,” she told AFP. “How do you call (anyone) if, God forbid, there is an attack?”

She added that there is more room for disinformation to spread, including about reports of unconfirmed attacks. “People will of course put their safety first if they are unable to verify rumours of an attack in their area,” she said, noting such disinformation could cause voters to stay away from the polls.

‘Heavy-handed measures’

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the cell phone service suspension and widespread internet disruptions on election day, with reports of journalists prevented from coverage in some areas.

“Cutting off mobile communication services on an election day and preventing journalists from reporting from polling stations severely undermine citizens’ rights to stay informed,” said CPJ’s Asia Programme Coordinator Beh Lih Yi.

“These heavy-handed measures raise serious questions about Pakistan’s commitment to democracy and human rights. A free and fair election requires independent media reporting and unhampered access to information.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also demanded the immediate restoration of internet and cellular services across the country. In a post on X, it said the disruption had occurred despite the Sindh High Court’s direction to the caretaker government to ensure uninterrupted internet services.

Amnesty International called the suspension of mobile and internet services throughout the day “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.

“Unwarranted restrictions on the dissemination of information, despite reassurances to the contrary from the Pakistan Tele­communications Authority and Election Commission of Pakistan, are in breach of people’s human rights at this critical time in Pakistan,” Amnesty International’s South Asia office said in a statement.

Kalbe Ali also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024

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