Mobile services in Pakistan gradually restored following election day blackout
Mobile services have been reinstated in Pakistan following a nationwide blackout across the country as millions headed to the polls to vote in the provincial and general elections on Thursday, despite global digital rights groups calling on the government to ensure unhindered access to the internet following historic shutdowns.
The election has been mired in controversy and allegations of vote rigging in what is expected to be a highly contested vote, following the ousting and jailing of popular former Prime Minister Imran Khan two years ago.
Members of the #KeepItOn coalition, a global network of over 300 organisations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns, have written an open letter to Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar and the election commissioner asking them to ensure free access to the internet, social media platforms and other communication channels.
The #KeepItOn campaign was launched in 2016 by Access Now, an international non-profit organisation focused on digital civil rights, to help unite activists across the world to end internet shutdowns.
Opposition parties have been particularly targeted by internet disruptions during the current election cycle, according to Access Now. Online election campaigns by opposition parties were disrupted in December and last month, the group noted.
⚠️ Update: Real-time network data show that internet blackouts are now in effect in multiple regions of #Pakistan in addition to mobile network disruptions; the incident comes on election day and follows months of digital censorship targeting the political opposition 📉 pic.twitter.com/47Yja44TI9— NetBlocks (@netblocks) February 8, 2024
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now said that the internet blackouts were a feature of a "wider democratic backsliding and political upheaval in Pakistan".
He said: "The decision to impose internet restrictions in Balochistan, right after the Election Commission stated that no proposal for internet shutdowns on election day was under consideration, is a shocking example of this."
Meanwhile, there have been growing concerns over the possibility of a rigged vote orchestrated by the country’s powerful military, which ruled for three decades and is widely known to hold huge influence on all levels of power.
Former Prime Minister Nawar Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party is tipped to win the vote after allegedly receiving backing from the military, following the imprisonment of Khan.
Press freedoms have been curtailed with the military reportedly censoring this year’s election coverage, according to a report in Al Jazeera.
The report interviewed Pakistani journalists who said that they have been receiving calls from military officials instructing them not to name Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) nor use its branding, or mention candidates’ affiliation during coverage.
Pakistan, the world's fifth most populous nation, will see 128 million voters go to the polls for the national and provincial elections.
The country has been undergoing a long-running economic crisis with high inflation rates and a wave of security incidents.
The day before the vote, 28 people were killed in two separate bomb explosions outside the offices of election candidates on Wednesday.
According to Access Now, authorities in Pakistan have a precedent of internet blackouts, including in May 2023 when internet connections were turned off during street protests following Khan’s dramatic arrest which blocked demonstrators from sharing updates on social media platforms.
The country’s telecoms agency, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, has attributed the recent internet disruptions to ‘ongoing system upgrades’ and warned these could continue for another two to three months - something which Access Now said raises more concerns.
In addition, the imprisonment of national icon and former PTI leader Khan has pushed the election into further discord.
Cricket champion Khan is considered one of the South Asian nation’s most popular figures and his arrest last year over charges of corruption, leaking state secrets and misusing his premiership, was condemned by his many supporters.
Last week, he was sentenced to 14 years in jail, just a day after he was handed a ten-year sentence for leaking state secrets. Khan has denied the allegations and said they are politically motivated.