Photo: Radio Pakistan

Rights Groups Worry About Internet Outage on Election Day in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – Election observers and human rights organizations have raised concerns about a government decision to suspend internet access on election day. Amnesty International and several other human rights organizations have urged Pakistan’s caretaker government to ensure uninterrupted access to the internet and digital communication platforms for everyone across the country on election day.

Yesterday, February 6, Pakistan’s Caretaker Interior Minister Dr. Gohar Ejaz said that the government would consider suspending internet access on election day if a district or province requested it due to the security situation.

Earlier on Sunday, interim Balochistan Information Minister Jan Achakzai also announced that internet connectivity would be temporarily limited in sensitive polling booths across the province on election day due to security concerns.

“Ensuring the safety and security of ordinary citizens is of utmost importance, as there is a concern that terrorists may exploit social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and other similar channels for communication purposes,” he said.

Observers and opposition parties have shown concerns about the credibility of the upcoming parliamentary elections, which will be held tomorrow, February 8. The country’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, who was barred to stand for election and is in jail for sharing state secrets, has repeatedly said that the election is only a show put forth by the country’s powerful army to install its own puppets.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, January 6, rights groups urged Pakistani authorities to prioritize measures promoting human rights, including unrestricted access to information and avenues for freedom of expression, assembly, and association—both online and offline.

They called on Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar and the country’s Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja to ensure that the people of Pakistan have uninterrupted communication tools on election day.

“We, the undersigned organizations and a global network of over 300 organizations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — appeal to you to publicly commit to ensuring that the people of Pakistan have unfettered access to the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels throughout the upcoming general election on February 8, 2024,” the rights group stated.

Previously, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also urged the interim government of Pakistan to ensure journalists can operate freely and safely on election day and grant nationwide access to the internet.

“Blocking critical reporting and hindering access to an open flow of information will only raise more questions about the election, which is already under scrutiny for its legitimacy,” said CPJ Asia Programme Coordinator Beh Lih Yi.

The country has a history of frequent internet disruptions during elections and opposition activities for various reasons, including security concerns. In the last general election in 2018, residents of Pakistan experienced at least 11 internet shutdowns, including three instances within the span of just one week. In May 2023, the previous government of Pakistan shut down the internet and social media platforms amid nationwide protests following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) underscores the substantial economic implications of internet availability, citing past shutdowns that resulted in telecom operators facing losses of Rs820 million ($3 million) in a single day. “A broader perspective reveals that a day without the internet inflicts a loss of Rs940 million ($3.4 million) on telecom companies, alongside a significant Rs329 million ($1.2 million) hit to government tax revenues,” PTA said.

More than 128 million Pakistanis are registered to vote in tomorrow’s elections, which is already stirred with security incidents and political violence. At least 24 civilians were killed and 30 more wounded in twin blasts this morning in a candidate’s office in Balochistan, a province that has seen rising security incidents in recent months.

The United Nations has previously voiced concern about potential violence targeting political parties and candidates on election day. “We deplore all acts of violence against political parties and candidates, and urge the authorities to uphold the fundamental freedoms necessary for an inclusive and meaningful democratic process,” spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Liz Throssell said.