ISLAMABAD: The interim government has suspended mobile phone and data services across the country in the run-up to election day on Thursday, despite the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority earlier guaranteeing continued internet access.
At the time of going to press, service had not yet been restored in large areas of the country.
However, landline internet and social media websites did not face disruption.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that “precious lives have been lost” in recent extremist attacks and that “security measures are essential to maintain a law and order situation and deal with potential threats.”
This decision to block mobile and internet services has not only disrupted people’s daily lives, but also disrupted the electoral process, with many voters unable to go to the polls or even find a polling place. cast a shadow.
Voters will use the Election Commission’s text message service to confirm which polling place they are registered to vote. The unavailability of ride-hailing apps also prevented many voters from traveling to and from polling places.
Questions also arose as to whether presiding officers would be able to transmit polling station results via the controversial Electoral Management System (EMS), given communication failures.
However, Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja downplayed the controversy and suggested that the presiding officer could physically deliver Form-45 and other important documents to the office of the returning officer. These documents will be uploaded to EMS and automatically transferred once internet service is restored, he said.
“I want to make it clear that our business is not dependent on the internet,” Raja said, according to the report. dawn.com.
NetBlocks, a global internet watchdog, said data confirmed there were disruptions to mobile phone and internet services and “corroborates widespread user reports of disruptions.”
“Pakistan’s ongoing election day internet outage is one of the largest ever observed in any country in terms of its severity and scope,” said Arup Tokar, director of NetBlocks. . AFP.
“This practice is inherently undemocratic, limits the activities of independent election observers, and is known to cause fraud in the voting process.”
Mobile and data services were suspended shortly after voting began and remained unavailable until late into the night.
Just after 8 p.m., the Ministry of Home Affairs announced on X (formerly Twitter) that mobile phone services in Bakar, Sargodha, Taxila, Gujjar Khan Chakri, Loralai, Sibi, Jal Magsi, etc. will be “gradually restored in various parts of the country. We are in the process of doing so.” Network signals started appearing on mobile screens shortly after midnight across Sindh province except Karachi.
At least two news websites — geography news and Samaa — became unavailable for several hours at night with “Error 503 Failed to obtain backend” and “Error 404” messages respectively.
“Brazen attack on democracy”
PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was the first to raise the alarm about this issue. “Mobile services should be restored immediately across the country. I have asked my party to approach both the ECP and the courts for this purpose,” he tweeted.
Later speaking to the media in Larkana, he said the suspension of mobile services would not only affect voter turnout but also public safety “in case of violent incidents”.
PTI’s election communications cell in Sindh called this a “brazen attack on democracy” and called on the ECP to restore internet services across the country.
Barrister Ali Tahir, PTI’s election secretary, said in a letter to the CEC Raja that the internet shutdown had raised “serious doubts about the ECP’s commitment to fulfilling its constitutional obligations.”
“The excuses provided by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for these internet outages are flimsy and inadequate,” he claimed.
PTI leader Hammad Azhar also questioned the failure to restore the telephone network. “What security situation is currently at risk?” he asked in a social media post.
Jamaat-e-Islam leader Hafiz Naimur Rehman expressed serious concern over the communication disruption due to the outage of mobile services and accused the government of paralyzing the communication system on election day.
Independent candidate Jibran Nasir Said The government “disenfranchised voters and political parties, especially the PTI and candidates, by suspending mobile services across the country.”
“Power brokers violate not only our freedom of expression but also our right to information,” he said. “Anything that gives power to the people is despised by the ruling class.”
Nighat Dad, a lawyer who runs the nonprofit Digital Rights Foundation, said the suspension of mobile and internet services was “an attack on the democratic rights of Pakistanis.”
“Turning off cell phone service is not a solution to national security concerns. Cutting off access to information creates further chaos,” she said. AFP. “How would you call (someone) if there was an attack?”
She added that there is more room for disinformation to spread, including reports of unconfirmed attacks. “If people can’t confirm rumors of an attack in their area, they will naturally prioritize their own safety,” she said, adding that such misinformation could deter voters from voting. she pointed out.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the disruption of mobile phone service and widespread internet outages on election day, which prevented journalists from reporting in some areas.
“Cutting mobile communications services on election day and preventing journalists from reporting from polling stations seriously undermines people’s right to information,” said Bae Li Yee, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. said.
“These strong measures raise serious questions about Pakistan’s commitment to democracy and human rights. Free and fair elections require independent media reporting and unhindered access to information.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also called for immediate restoration of internet and mobile phone services across the country. In a post on X, it said the disruption occurred despite the Sindh High Court directing the caretaker government to ensure uninterrupted internet services.
Amnesty International said the day-long suspension of mobile and internet services was a “blatant attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
Amnesty International’s South Asia office said in a statement: “Despite reassurances to the contrary from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and the Election Commission of Pakistan, unwarranted restrictions on the dissemination of information are threatening people at this critical time in Pakistan. It violates the human rights of people.”
Kalbe Ali also contributed to this report
Published at dawn on February 9, 2024