The govt must ensure there are no internet disruptions on polling day
In the run up to the February 8 general elections in Pakistan, there has been constant paranoia about the state of internet access. This is not unfounded because social media platforms have been blocked at least six times in the past year alone, and the uncertainty was compounded by the fact that there has been complete lack of transparency about the timing, duration, and nature of the disruptions.
The uncertainty around the state of the internet itself — notwithstanding whether any disruptions take place or not — taints the process of voting and democracy. As it is, citizens are concerned about the uncertainty of the security situation, and the possibility of not being able to communicate while out for voting adds to the worry. A responsible state and a competent caretaker government would provide guarantees of seamless access, but all we have got so far are conflicting reports.
The question that arises is whether the caretaker government will go in contempt of the recent Sindh High Court order to the caretaker government that seamless and uninterrupted internet services be provided on the day of and around the general elections. The caretaker federal Information Minister Murtaza Solangi and the caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz in a press conference on Tuesday said that there are no plans of internet disruption on election day, unless “a district or province” requests for internet services to be suspended.
At the same time, the Balochistan caretaker Minister for Information Jan Achakzai posted on X (formerly Twitter) that internet services would be suspended in Balochistan’s Turbat, Kech, and Chaman regions due to the “terrorist threat”. This is clearly in violation of the SHC’s orders, and would undermine the election process.
The terror threat
While militant activities certainly threaten the peaceful conduct of elections, there is no link between internet access and terrorist activity. How is blocking social media or turning off mobile internet services going to thwart militancy when terrorism predates the widespread availability of internet and mobile services? If anything, being able to communicate can help save lives of people who may be stranded or affected. As it is, over 596,000 security personnel from the army, police, and civil defence have been deployed across the country for security during elections.
Rather, internet shutdowns are a form of collective punishment that disproportionately violates citizens’ rights rather than securing them. It violates the right to freedom of speech and press freedom, right to information, and the right to association. The uncertainty around shutdowns impacts the right to vote which forms the cornerstone of democracy.
Uninterrupted and normal speed access to the internet is important on election day for people to communicate with each other, access information regarding their candidates, access information regarding their polling stations and constituency as well as report in real time through social media any instances of election mismanagement, rigging, or incidents of violence.
There is no legal justification for blocking access to the internet or social media either. While a 2009 policy directive under the Pakistan Telecommunications (Reorganisation) Act 2016, allows internet suspension on the grounds of hostility from foreign powers, internal aggression from a terrorist group, or national security and defence of Pakistan, these do not apply to elections or election campaigning.
Silencing a political party
Over the last several months, the PTA has been carrying out unlawful censorship as the website of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) remains blocked for access in Pakistan. A similar block of the Awami Workers Party website had taken place prior to the 2018 elections, which the Islamabad High Court had termed unconstitutional. How now is the PTA actively censoring a political party’s website without any justification or transparency, and stopping millions of citizens from accessing information regarding the election symbol of their candidates after the Supreme Court took away one common election symbol for all of the party’s candidates?
The caretaker government has failed to dispel the popular perception in Pakistan that it is acting to discourage voting for one political party — the PTI — which has perceivably been under persecution from the state, and because of its strong digital presence and innovative ways of using the internet for its political campaigning, internet disruptions and social media blockages have become routine.
Independent commentators and people associated with other political parties also agree with this perception, given the overwhelming evidence such as blocking social media only on days when the PTI was holding virtual gatherings and blocking of the PTI’s website.
As for internet disruptions, a coalition of global human rights organisations including Amnesty International, the Global Network Initiative, and Access Now has also written to the caretaker government demanding public assurance of internet and social media access during and after the elections, refrain from ordering any disruptions, ensure high speed of internet and that people be informed in case of any potential disruption.
It is time that the Pakistani state stops disrupting the internet not only to protect fundamental rights of citizens and protect democracy, but to protect the country’s IT industry and small businesses from the high economic cost that internet and social media disruptions entail.