According to the Report by AccessNow, India is leading in the number of Internet Shutdowns in the world. After the removal of special status to Jammu & Kashmir last month, the Government of India imposed severe Internet shutdowns as a form of preventive measures. Pakistan has been criticizing this move of the Indian government as a form of human rights violation. Yet, frequent Internet shutdowns have become a feature of the Pakistani establishment too.
We should remember that Balochistan has been deprived from internet connectivity for the last two years.
Section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunications Act (PTA), 1996 grants authorities the power to suspend services, but only during a state of emergency. The misuse of this Act by the law enforcement agencies have increased. This was challenged in the court by a number of aggrieved people.
Hearing a separate petition challenging telecommunications shutdowns during Pakistan Day celebrations, the Islamabad High Court noted in late 2016 that unless the government could prove otherwise, “the suspension of mobile phone services by the government was illegal as powers conferred upon the government under Section 54 (3) of the PTA Act can only be applied in clearly defined circumstances.” Though the final judgment took time.
The collection of cases in this article will begin from June 2016 till September 2019. There have been around 19 shutdowns during this period. The reasons behind these shutdowns are mainly due to religious and festivals, public safety, and other security reasons.
Starting on June 12, 2016, mobile Internet service was shut down for more than a year in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This was due to an exchange of fire between local and Afghan forces during the construction of a gate on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. No official reason was given for the disruption, and service had yet to be restored more than a year later.
On August 12, 2016, the Ministry of Interior forwarded a letter to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to suspend cellular services in Islamabad, on the occasion of Independence Day. The mobile phone service remained suspended for six hours from 6:00 am till 12:00 pm on August 14 as the part of security measures for Independence Day celebrations planned in the capital.
Between October 9 and 12, 2016, mobile services were suspended for several hours in more than a dozen cities and towns due to security fears surrounding processions scheduled during the Ashura holiday. The Ashura holiday is observed most visibly by the Shiite sect, which is a minority in Pakistan and often the target of sectarian terrorist groups.
In November 2016, the interior ministry directed cellular service operators to temporarily block service in Sindh province, the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, and some districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as part of Chehlum, a day observed particularly by Shiite Muslims.
According to the Diplomat, in late February of 2017, before beginning to collect population census data, 3G/4G mobile internet services were suspended in Kech district (the second most popular district in Balochistan). The sole reason given was “security reasons.” Over two years later, 3G/4G services remain suspended. Several districts of Baluchistan, including Chagai, Pishin, Panjgoor, Killa Abdullah, Turbat, Qalat, Kharan, Panjgur and Dalbandin, have had no mobile internet service since February 2017.
On the occasion of Pakistan Day (March 23, 2017), cellular services were suspended intermittently both before, and during Pakistan Day parades in the federal capital and surrounding territories. Officials said that the shutdown was restricted to an area within a 10 kilometer radius of the parade venue in Islamabad.
As done in previous years, on September 29, 2017, mobile services were suspended for several hours in more than a dozen cities and towns due to security concerns surrounding processions scheduled during the Ashura holiday. Mobile services were suspended in Karachi, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Jacobabad, Kashmore, Khairpur, Shikarpur, and other parts of Sindh province.
In a partial form of internet shutdown and censorship, in November 2017, social media platforms were suspended in the wake of protests by Islamists that turned violent; the protestors objected to a new oath that lawmakers take when sworn into office that omits mention of the Prophet Mohammed. The nationwide suspension lasted from November 25-26. According to the Digital Rights Foundation, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were restricted on mobile operators Mobilink, Zong, Telenor, and Ufone, and on fixed providers Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), Witribe, Zong, and Cybernet; while YouTube restrictions were only partially implemented.
On December 1, 2017, mobile phone and internet services remained suspended in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur for 12 hours on advice of the law enforcement agencies as a security measure for Eid Miladun Nabi (PBUH).
Both internet and mobile services were suspended on February 25, 2018 within 10 km radius of LoC (affecting areas like Neelum valley, Leepa valley, Sehra Village in Battal Sector of Poonch District, Tatta Pani sector of Kotli district etc), a day before Indian jets had flown into the Pakistani airspace and dropped payload on a hillock near Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
On July 13, 2018, mobile phone and internet services remained suspended in parts of Lahore – Lahore Airport, Walled City Area, Shadra Area, Barqi/Hadyara Area, and Nawab Town Area, ahead of Nawaz Sharif’s return from London. The services remained suspended from 3:00 pm to 11 pm.
The Sindh government decided to suspend the internet and cellular services in different cities from September 19 to 21, 2018 as a security measure during Ashura. The services remained inactive between 7:00 am and midnight in various cities, including Karachi. Every year this shut down is a part of security arrangements for majalis and mourning processions in Muharram. The services remained closed in other major cities including Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta.
On October 28, 2018, when hundreds of Pashtun people marched towards Bannu. Organized using the hashtag #PashtunLongMarch2Bannu, the march was part of a peaceful protest by residents of Pashtun who are victims of the war on terror and extrajudicial killings, with those participating asking the government to extend equal rights to the Pashtun people. As the protestors gathered in Bannu, activists in Pakistan began reporting on social media that the government had blocked mobile phone signals.
Mobile phone services and internet services were shut off on October 30, 2018, by the authorities in certain cities in Punjab, including Lahore, in Sindh, including Karachi, and Hyderabad, as well as in certain locations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces. The shut down was due to the annual Shi’a Muslim religious celebration of Arba’een and was implemented to address related security concerns. During the Arba’een, the threat of terrorism and violence against Shi’a worshippers from Sunni extremist groups, including the Islamic State (IS), is considered higher.
On November 2, 2018, the government suspended mobile phone services in some cities due to the protests across the country, after the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Aasia Bibi case. In Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Gujranwala mobile phone services were suspended from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.
On March 21, 2019, mobile and internet services were suspended in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad in view of preparations for the Pakistan Day (23 March).
Netlblock internet observatory has shown that Pakistan’s Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) internet service was disrupted in Pakistan Administered Kashmir on August 15, 2019, between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. local time as protests against India’s abrogation of Article 370 gathered pace.
Similarly, in parts of Pakistan Administered Kashmir, internet access was cut on September 7, 2019, amid protests against India’s revocation of Article 370. NetBlock internet observatory said that PTCL networks were shut in Kashmir on multiple dates through August and the longest of these disruptions continue.
On September 9 and 10, 2019, internet services in various parts of the country, including Islamabad, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Peshawar were shut down ahead of the Muharram. The cellular services — particularly in areas through which Muharram procession passed — remained suspended from morning till 6 p.m. on both days.
In February 2018, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) held in a landmark ruling that mobile network shutdowns on the ground of public safety under Section 54(3) of the PTA Act, including mobile-based internet suspension, infringed upon the fundamental rights of citizens and were thus illegal. However, in March 2018, the IHC suspended the judgment and the matter is pending before the court.
Source : This article was published through data from Freedom House’s Internet Freedom Score, Dawn Newspaper, Samma Tv, Pakistan Today, The News, Garda, Daily World and Access Now.