As Pakistan prepares to go to the polls on July 25, Bolo Bhi, Digital Rights Foundation, NetBlocks, and others concerned about free expression are calling on the caretaker government to protect the integrity of mobile networks and internet connection across Pakistan.
Within the past two years, Pakistan has had more than 19 internet shutdowns, according to Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP). Using public safety and national security as the rationale, Pakistan has shut down the internet and mobile networks just when access to information is most necessary. Free and fair elections depend on free and open public discourse.
Pakistan has cut mobile network and internet access as recently as last week in Lahore. Now, civil society organizations in Pakistan fear that internet and cellular services will again be disrupted during the elections.
Legal status for shutdowns in Pakistan
Earlier this year, The High Court of Islamabad delivered a major win in the fight to stop internet shutdowns in Pakistan, and a boost to similar legal battles worldwide. The court held that Pakistan’s policy that claims the power to order internet shutdowns on the grounds of “national security” is illegal.
Specifically, the court found that the authority under this policy directive is too broad, hinging on ambiguous terms (such as “national security”). The court further relied on section 54(3) of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Reorganization) Act 1996. This section provides that on “proclamation of emergency by the President of Pakistan,” the government can suspend telecommunication services.
On appeal to a division bench of the High Court, the court granted interim stay of the order until May, and has allowed cellular network suspensions for the time being.
At Access Now, we believe that broad and vague legal standards to authorize interference with free expression keep this law open to misuse and abuse for censorship of critical voices. It is imperative that authorities adhere to narrow standards subject to strict interpretation, along with due process, for any and all restrictions to freedom of expression.
Your story could help stop the shutdowns
If you’re in Pakistan, your voice is especially important right now. We have previously documented some of the vital work that civil society is doing to fight internet shutdowns, including sharing personal stories that Bytes for All Pakistan, a member of the #KeepItOn coalition, collected in partnership with us.
Your story and any information you share about a shutdown that you experience can help build on this effort to show the world what is going on. It can inform global media and provide evidence for international advocacy against censorship and shutdowns in forums like the United Nations Human Rights Council.
During this upcoming election, you can help the #KeepItOn coalition identify and report on any incident of online censorship, network shutdowns, and platform blocks you encounter. You can use tools by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) or NetBlocks to gather technical evidence of a shutdown, and you can use this form to tell us your shutdown story, to provide a narrative account with details on the direct impact that it has on your life. It is critically important to show the real effect of shutdowns on the people who suffer from them.
When we work together to document these incidents, we strengthen the fight to defend free expression in Pakistan and around the world, so be sure to spread the word. We are listening.