Political forces, digital rights group term internet, cellphone service suspension ‘inherently undemocratic’

ISLAMABAD: Global internet watchdog NetBlocks described the suspension of internet and mobile phone services as “inherently undemocratic,” which the Interior Ministry claimed aimed at maintaining law and order situation during polling for the election 2024.

Similarly, political parties including the PTI and PPP and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan flayed the government’s decision to suspend mobile phone services nationwide. They termed the suspension of internet and cellphone service as a violation of the Sindh High Court orders, which had directed the interim government against any such move on election day.

A statement from the interior ministry said 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”.

NetBlocks, a global internet watchdog, said data confirmed 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 media.

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

The election has already been marred by allegations of pre-vote rigging, and pollsters have predicted a low turnout following the jailing of former prime minister Imran Khan and the hobbling of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said it was “an ominous start to election day”.

“It’s clear, based on the steps they took as soon as the polls opened, that the powers that be remain concerned about the PTI’s possible electoral impact. Especially its turnout potential,” he said.

Mobile phone services were not disrupted in 2018, when analysts said security concerns were greater, with a bombing at an election rally killing more than 140 people.

On that election day, more than 30 people were killed in a blast in Quetta claimed by a chapter of the Islamic state.

Pakistan’s authorities regularly cut access to mobile phones during major protests or during festivals when religious tensions rise, to prevent militants from communicating with each other.

Jammers are also used to prevent bombs being triggered via mobile phone.

Internet and access to social media has been disrupted several times during the election campaign, coinciding with opposition online live-streams.

The government blamed the outages on “technical difficulties” but the PTI said it was an attempt to disrupt their campaign, which has already been heavily sidelined.

PTI information secretary Raoof Hasan told the outage “will impede the work that our activists are doing on the ground to get people to the polling stations”.

“The physical space given to us has been completely cut out so we are totally dependent on connectivity through the net,” he said.

According to the Federal Interior Ministry, mobile phone and internet services were suspended across Pakistan to maintain law and order situation in election 2024.

“As a result of the recent incidents of terrorism in the country precious lives have been lost, security measures are essential to maintain the law and order situation and deal with possible threats, hence the temporary suspension of mobile services across the country,” the interior ministry said in a message on X (formerly Twitter).

The suspension of internet and cellular services affected the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) 8300 SMS service.

Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja had ordered the police chiefs and chief secretaries of all provinces to put security on high alert following terror attacks in Balochistan on the eve of general elections.

PTI condemns suspension of mobile, internet services

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) strongly criticized the nationwide suspension of mobile phone and internet services on Election Day, denouncing it as an assault on democracy.

A spokesperson for the party lambasted the Election Commission of Pakistan, accusing it of failing to uphold the transparency and integrity of the electoral process.

“The termination of mobile phone services on election day is a blatant attempt to disenfranchise voters and suppress turnout,” the PTI spokesperson asserted. “It represents a systematic conspiracy to deprive citizens of their constitutional right to vote.”

Citing concerns over electoral rigging, the spokesperson contended that the shutdown of communication services was designed to obscure any evidence of malpractice at polling stations. “The Election Commission is turning a blind eye to the erosion of democratic principles occurring right under its nose,” they added.

In a resolute tone, the PTI spokesperson declared, “The nation will not tolerate such orchestrated efforts to subvert the electoral process.”

Meanwhile, Independent candidate Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, contesting from National Assembly Constituencies NA 47 and 48, voiced strong opposition to the decision to suspend mobile phone services across the country, labeling it as the onset of electoral fraud.

In his statement regarding the mobile phone service suspension, Khokhar expressed concern over the disconnection of communication channels between candidates, agents, and election machinery, deeming it excessive. He emphasized that such actions undermine the integrity of the electoral process and are incompatible with the principles of fair and transparent elections.


HRCP says suspension affected voters’ right to information

HRCP demands immediate restoration of internet, cellular services across country

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has demanded the immediate restoration of internet and cellular services across the country.

In a post on social media platform X, it said: “The ongoing disruption to services has occurred despite the Sindh High Court’s direction to the caretaker government to ensure uninterrupted internet services on polling day.”

“With the PTA claiming it has received no instructions from the government to block internet services, there is a worrying lack of transparency about where, when and how long the disruption will continue, thereby affecting voters’ right to information and potentially the transmission of results,” the HRCP said. It added that those behind the outages should be identified and held responsible.


ECP issues show cause notices to four news channels

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) over violation of the election code of conduct issued show cause notices to four electronic media news channels on Thursday.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had complained that Geo News, ARY News, GNN and Dawn News had violated ECP code of conduct and PEMRA law by conducting exclusive interviews of leaders of various political parties.

PEMRA has given the management of the news channels seven days to file a reply in personal hearing after which further action would be taken.

Moreover, the PERMA issued directives to the satellite news channels to strictly follow the code of conduct issued under Election Act 2017, otherwise, they would face action.

Meanwhile, former climate change minister Sherry Rehman filed a petition in Lahore’s election commission against the suspension of mobile and internet services.

Speaking outside the electoral watchdog’s office, Rehman expressed concern at the internet outage on election day and demanded that services be restored “urgently”.

The PPP leader said that suspending the internet services would “negate democracy and the polling process”, emphasising that candidates needed an internet connection to remain in touch with their polling agents.

“Our entire communication system depends on the internet. How will polling agents convey their complaints to us.


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