Pakistan Faces Backlash Over Internet Shutdown Amid Polls

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Pakistan’s caretaker government faced widespread criticism for blocking internet and cellular services across the country on the day of the General Elections, despite assurances from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) that it would not do so. The communication blackout, which lasted for several hours after the polls closed, left many citizens in the dark about the election results and raised doubts about the fairness of the electoral process.

The Interior Ministry of Pakistan justified the suspension of the services as a measure to protect the “precious lives” of citizens from “militant attacks”. However, many voters were unable to find their polling stations or report any election irregularities due to the lack of internet and cellular access. Moreover, the disruption fueled suspicions of election rigging, which were already widespread before the voting began.

The decision to block the internet and cellular services was strongly condemned by politicians, human rights groups, journalists, and citizens. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and a candidate for the Prime Minister’s seat, was among the first to voice his concern over the matter. He urged his party to approach both the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the courts to restore the services. He also posted on the social media platform ‘X’, formerly Twitter, saying: “The mobile services should immediately be restored across the country.”

Another prominent politician, Hammad Azhar of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), also questioned the PTA’s failure to resume the internet and cellular services. He asked on ‘X’: “Which security situation is in danger now?”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced the closure of cellular services on election day, arguing that it hindered journalists from covering the election news effectively. “Cutting off mobile communication services on an election day and preventing journalists from reporting from polling stations severely undermine citizens’ rights to stay informed,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia Programme Coordinator.

The CPJ also said that the “heavy-handed measures” raised serious questions about Pakistan’s commitment to democracy and human rights. “A free and fair election requires independent media reporting and unhampered access to information,” the CPJ added.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also expressed its disapproval of the communication blackout and urged the PTA to restore the internet and cellular services. The HRCP noted that the disruption violated the Sindh High Court’s order to the caretaker government to ensure uninterrupted internet services on election day.

Amnesty International was more forthright in its criticism. In a tweet on ‘X’, the organization called the suspension of internet and cellular services in Pakistan a “blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” Amnesty also demanded that the Pakistani authorities “urgently lift the blanket restrictions on access” to the services.

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