ISLAMABAD, October 2, 2017: As part of security measures for Ashura, mobile and internet services remained suspended in various cities and districts of Pakistan. The government claimed that this measure was done to avert possible untoward security situations.
A formal notification for network disconnections was issued only by the Sindh Home Department. As per the notification available with Media Matters for Democracy, the cellular and Internet services were to be suspended in eight cities across Sindh for three days between September 29 and October 01, 2017. The cities included Karachi, Hyderabad, Shaheed Benazirabad, Khairpur, Sukkur, Larkana, Shikarpur and Jaccobabad. As per the notification, communication services were to be suspended from 10AM-10PM on September 29, 2017 (8th Muharram) along the routes of processions and a complete shutdown will be experienced in aforementioned cities on 30th September to 1st October, the 9th and 10th of Muharram, from 8 AM to 12 AM.
Similar bans came into effect in other parts of the country. Geo News reported that mobile services were suspended in different parts of Punjab in Faisalabad, Sialkot, and Bhukkur.
Earlier, talking to MMFD, Ministry of Interior Spokesperson rejected that there were any plans for suspension of cellular services in Islamabad. He noted that a formal notification would be issued in this regard.
Meanwhile, no notification had been issued by Baluchistan Home Department to suspend cellular and Internet services. However, sources within Balochistan revealed that the cellular services were suspended on 9th and 10th Muharram from 7AM-7PM in various cities including Quetta, Mach, Bolan, Sibi, Jhal Magsi, Naseerabad, Jaffarabad, Dera Murad Jamali and Dera Allah Yar.
Like Balochistan, there was no formal notification in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but Dawn reported that City Policy had requested the provincial government to ban cellular services in Peshawar and services remained suspended on 30th September and 1st October.
A futile effort
Globally, internet rights advocates term network disconnections “a threat to human rights” and hold that shutting off communication services “harm everyone”. Within Pakistan, network disconnections are commonplace and are justified within the security narrative. However, disconnecting communication services, at times like Ashura when the risk of terrorism is higher and hundreds of people are at risk, is particularly concerning. In case of an emergency, these people are left without the means to connect to emergency services. In addition, cutting access to communication does nothing to actually counter the problem of terrorism.
Inconvenience for citizens
According to estimates, nearly 25 million people were affected by the network suspensions. Many of them weren’t able to commute using the ride-hailing services such as Uber and Careem. In a carefully worded statement, Careem’s Head of Public Affairs confirmed that their services were affected across Pakistan, without giving the specifics.
Media reports also claimed that people using GSM tracker enabled cars were stranded due to the unavailability of cellular services. A representative of a Karachi based GSM tracker company confirmed the possibility of cars getting stranded, unable to start, due to the suspension of cellular services.
Legality of network shutdowns
Asad Baig, a digital rights activist termed the ‘casual’ suspension in cellular services in the name of security, unconstitutional. He said, “ network shutdowns are often ordered by the federal government under sub-section-II of Section 54 of Telecom Act which states that during a war or hostilities against Pakistan by any foreign power or internal aggression or for the defence or security of Pakistan, the federal government shall have preference and priority in telecommunication system over any licensee”.
“The government however under the guise of this section casually suspends services on a whim. Not only that it’s unconstitutional, it’s also a gross violation of citizens’ fundamental rights”, he added.
Asad Baig is an Islamabad-based journalist. He is the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan’s leading media development organisation. He’s also the CEO of the Media Lab, country’s first and only incubator and accelerator for digital media startups. He tweets at @asadbeyg.