February 8, 2024
ISLAMABAD – Caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz on Tuesday hinted at the possible suspension of the internet service in case of security issues in any area on the election day (tomorrow) while Amnesty International called for uninterrupted internet access across the country during the polling process.
The minister said the government would consider suspending the internet service on Feb 8 only if it receives a request from a district or province in view of the security situation.
Mr Ejaz claimed that the caretaker government had so far not made any decision to suspend the internet service on polling day and that any such action would only be taken on a request from a province or a district concerned.
“Before taking any such decision for a specific area, the government would look into the nature of the threat as it is necessary to block the online communication of terrorists,” he added.
Amnesty calls for uninterrupted online access during polls; SHC restrains govt from internet blackout
Gohar Ejaz was speaking at a press conference along with caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi in Islamabad.
A day before, Mr Solangi had ruled out the possibility of an internet shutdown on the polling day, saying local administrations had the authority to make such a decision in light of the law and order situation and no such situation had so far been reported.
Caretaker Balochistan Information Minister Jan Achakzai announced that the internet service would remain temporarily restricted in the sensitive polling booths in the province on the election day.
Amidst a controversy over the plan to use the new Election Management System (EMS) in the elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had also recently said the system would work offline even in case of Internet service disruption.
Meanwhile, the Amnesty International has called on the Pakistani authorities to guarantee uninterrupted internet access.
In an open letter, it urged the authorities to guarantee ‘uninterrupted access’ to the internet and digital communication platforms for everyone across Pakistan throughout the polling process.
“We, the undersigned organisations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 organisations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — appeal to you, Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja, to publicly commit to ensuring that the people of Pakistan have unfettered access to the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels throughout the upcoming general election on February 8, 2024,” it said.
It noted that as the people of Pakistan prepare to vote, the authorities must adopt and prioritise measures that advance human rights, by enabling unrestricted access to information and avenues for freedom of expression, assembly, and association — both offline and online.
“This will also contribute to an inclusive, free, and fair election process,” the organisation said.
In a related development, the Sindh High Court (SCH) on Tuesday, yet again, directed the federal authorities concerned to ensure provision of smooth, uninterrupted internet service and access to social media platforms unless the relevant laws were invoked till Feb 21.
When a two-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi took up three petitions against suspension of internet services for hearing, the counsel for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) was found absent.
The high court adjourned the hearing till Feb 21 and ruled that its earlier interim order would continue till the next hearing.
On Jan 24, the SHC had issued an interim restraining order, asking the PTA and other respondents to ensure that there must be no disruption and shutdown of mobile phone, internet and broadband services till Jan 29 unless the relevant provisions of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act, 1996 and Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021 were attracted.
On Jan 29, a federal law officer and the lawyer for the PTA had sought more time to file comments on the behalf of authority, the information technology and communication and interior ministries and the court had put off the hearing till Feb 6 and also extended it interim order.
Lawyers Jibran Nasir and Hyder Raza as well as the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan had filed petitions against the ministries and the PTA for causing hindrance to access social media platforms and disturbing mobile internet and broadband services without any cogent reason and with intent to stop political parties as well as independent candidates from campaigning on social media for the Feb 8 election.