This article has been authored by Zainab Durrani who is a Project Manager at DRF
The recent incident of internet shutdown in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, has been noted by the Digital Rights Foundation with a grave degree of concern.
Two days without the Internet
For over 48 hours, between 30 May and 2 June, 2020 Quetta remained without access to mobile internet services. This occurrence, especially in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic that is at its peak in Pakistan at the moment, is an egregious infringement on the residents’ right and access to information, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the world and depriving them of potentially essential and lifesaving information.
Internet shutdowns are a deliberate effort to cut-off particular communities from access to the internet, which includes information, social media platforms and services accessible online. Internet shutdowns come in a myriad of forms: the relevant authority can choose to throttle access to a specific section of the population by cutting off bandwidth; instituting broadband/mobile internet shutdowns, “Internet blackouts”; blanket internet shutdowns, mobile phone call and text message network shutdowns; service-specific (platform) shutdown e.g cutting off access to platforms like Twitter or Facebook.
This particular shutdown purportedly came after escalating tensions between members of the Hazara and Pashtun communities in Quetta. The deaths of three young men from the Pashtun community led to unrest in the city and the eventual blockage of internet services was to purportedly quell this unrest. However, as per sources, the reasons for the shutdown were unknown to the provincial government at the time, who were unsure as to why the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had disbanded services in the city. Additionally, no official public notice was given by the PTA to communicate the shutdown, and its expected duration.
Concerns for residents
Internet shutdowns are an ineffective way of dealing with unrest in a particular locality, in that they are a disproportionate measure and human rights groups over the world have pointed out that they have the potential to engender more panic in the absence of access to information.
The shutdown impacted the work of many throughout the city. As a journalist, Mr. Hafizullah Sherani from Voice of America expressed difficulty in filing reports, having to go through the extraordinary lengths which involved attempting to get connectivity on the roadside, in front of a friend’s office, at 2 AM ironically in order to file his story on the shutdown itself. Saadullah Akhter from Balochistan Express echoed this experience noting that ‘it was an abrupt suspension when the city was in grip of tension following Hazara Town lynching hence we faced immense difficulty in getting accurate information over the incident and sharing it with other colleagues and newsrooms.’
This shutdown impacted the lives of dwellers from all walks of life, who, in the process of getting through an unprecedented pandemic, are relying heavily on connectivity not only to remain in touch with friends and family, but to coordinate efforts to arrange resources such as plasma of recovered patients to help those suffering from COVID-19.
Not only was it a problem as a field reporter, notes journalist Rani Wahidi, but as a citizen who could not communicate with their family through secure channels like Whatsapp, to keep in touch throughout the day or share her location with them for safety purposes. The shutdown increased the difficulty of those stepping outside their homes to work during a global pandemic.
Are shutdowns effective?
Shutdowns are a common tactic used by the state to ensure elusive aims such as “security” and “safety”. This is particularly so in Balochistan which faces frequent internet shutdowns and connectivity issues. For instance, in 2018 parts of Balochistan witnessed three shutdowns over the course of a week, one of which occurred during the Pashtun Long March.
As per Access Now there were at least 213 recorded instances of internet shutdowns the world over during the year 2019 alone in 33 countries. Not only are these shutdowns generating a social cost that impedes human rights, there is an economic cost--and a hefty one at that.
Researchers Samuel Woodhams and Simon Migliano report that:
"In economic terms, disruptions not only affect the formal economy but also the informal, especially in less well-developed nations. There can also be lasting damage with the loss of investor confidence and faltering development, all of which makes our estimates conservative.”. "On the human rights side, these shutdowns clearly impact citizens' freedom of expression and the right to information and may even result in an increase in violence."
Internet shutdowns often have a severe impact on freedom of assembly and association as well as mobility. Sadia Baloch, activist and member of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) said that the shutdown impacted the protest they were organizing for 4 year old Bramsh Baloch who lost her mother to violence and received injuries herself in Turbat, Balochistan.
‘... it specifically affected our protest which was on the next day,our mobilization was affected as very few people got the news and the rest of Balochistan has no internet facility which is a problem itself.’
While time-bound and location-specific internet shutdowns are very common, however there have been long-term shutdowns in the country as well. The former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) territories of Pakistan have also been facing an internet shutdown for 4 years now. 1460 days, give or take. ‘In early June 2016, at Torkham, the border forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan clashed over the construction of a gate by the Pakistani authorities on the border. This clash led to the suspension of 3G/4G services in bordering towns and tribal areas.’
The suspension of services is legally condoned under s.54 of the PTA Act which covers national security. S.54 (3) in particular reads: Upon proclamation of emergency by the President, the Federal Government may suspend or modify all or any order or licences made or issued under this Act or cause suspension of operation, functions or services of any licensee for such time as it may deem necessary.
This is despite Islamabad High Court (IHC) ruling that mobile network shutdowns, including mobile based internet suspension were illegal. The judgment, from February of 2018, indicated that access to telecommunication services is a fundamental right of the citizens of Pakistan, and any attempt to suspend said services is a violation of their constitutional rights. The case is currently pending on appeal.
Digital rights activist Usama Khilji of Bolo Bhi expressed his concerns by noting:
‘The long standing internet shutdown in ex-FATA is a gross violation of the fundamental rights to information and freedom of expression and increasingly the right to education as guaranteed by the Constitution. Millions of Pakistani citizens cannot be left out of internet access as it impacts their ability to communicate, access information, and access education especially since the pandemic started. The Universal Service Fund set up by the government & contributed to by telecom companies must immediately be utilised to enable internet access in ex-FATA.’
Over the last few years, the situation has taken a turn for the worse in terms of a greater cost paid by those cut off from the internet. Currently, as students hailing from outside metropolitans have had to return home due to the implications of the coronavirus spread and there are more people working from home, blanket and arbitrary shutdowns will have a disproportionate effect, depriving them of access to information, work and an education.
Being a member of the #KeepitOn campaign, which consists of 158 organizations from 65 countries that are devoted to fighting internet shutdowns, DRF is committed to reporting on and continuing its advocacy for constant and safe access to the internet for all.
https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/pandemic-internet-shutdown-danger.html https://voicepk.net/quetta-tensions-lead-to-internet-shutdown/ https://www.poynter.org/fact-checking/2019/sri-lanka-blocked-social-media-to-stop-misinformation-about-the-easter-terror-attacks-but-it-didnt-work/ https://www.accessnow.org/pakistan-shuts-down-the-internet-three-times-in-one-week/ https://www.accessnow.org/cms/assets/uploads/2020/02/KeepItOn-2019-report-1.pdf https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/09/tech/internet-shutdowns-cost-intl-hnk/index.html https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/balochistan-erupts-in-protests-over-a-murdered-mother-and-her-injured-4-year-old/ https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/balochistans-great-internet-shutdown/ https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/islamabad-high-court-ruled-mobile-network-shutdowns-illegal/
Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Blog