ISLAMABAD: After more than three days of censorship, the website of Awami Workers Party is finally accessible on a number of Internet services, Digital Rights Monitor has learnt.
Talking to DRM, AWP District Information Secretary Fahad Desmukh confirmed that the website was accessible over Nayatel.
Meanwhile, DRM ran another test using Open Internet Observatory Network App on June 06 and found out that the website was accessible over networks including Ufone and Pakistan Telecommunication Network, PTCL. However, the website was still inaccessible over Jazz and Zong 4G mobile internet.
On June 05, in the wake of recent censorship of its website, Awami Workers Party, AWP official filed an application with Election Commission of Pakistan, ECP requesting it to order the Caretaker Government and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA to unblock the party’s website and restrain them from doing so in future.
According to a copy of application available with Digital Rights Monitor and also uploaded on the AWP’s Facebook page, the application read that website had been blocked since the afternoon of June 03, 2018.
Expressing concern at the censorship weeks before elections, tt noted that technical evidence gathered by the party suggested that it was blocked across Pakistan by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
Lamenting that PTA did not inform them about the reason for the blocking, AWP application termed this blocking a gross violation of fundamental rights including Freedom of Association and Assembly (Article 17) and Freedom of speech (article 19).
Noting that Election Commission of Pakistan was responsible to ensure free and fair elections under the constitution and that government authorities were responsible to facilitate ECP in exercise of its duties, it urged the ECP to order Caretaker government and PTA to restore their website.
Meanwhile, Islamabad/Rawalpindi Chapter District Information Secretary Fahad Desmukh noted that the website was accessible on at least one Internet Service Provider Nayatel. He said that they were verifying if website was accessible on other networks as well.
#GeneralElections2018: Amidst shrinking online spaces, website of Awami Workers Party blocked in Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, JUNE 03, 2018: As Pakistan enters into the election mode and braces itself for General Elections on July 25, online censorship takes its toll on the Awami Workers Party, AWP, as their website has been blocked since evening.
The news came into limelight when a number of twitter users took to social media to express their inability to access the AWP website.
Awami Workers Party’s website appears to have been blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority.
— Aabida Ali (@aabidaali) June 3, 2018
Website of Awami Workers Party has been blocked. https://t.co/S9IAuQBdMV
— Tooba Syed (@Tooba_Sd) June 3, 2018
The Media Matters for Democracy/Digital Rights Monitor also ran a quick censorship test using “Open Observatory of Network Interference” app and found out that the website was blocked on at least two networks including Pakistan Telecommunication Network, PTCL and Zong 4G internet.
Our tests (by @OpenObservatory) confirm that the access to Awami Workers Party has been blocked in Pakistan. Please try accessing the website https://t.co/xPFtW6ykzq and report on this thread if you can see it. #GeneralElections2018
— MediaForDemocracy (@mmfd_Pak) June 3, 2018
Meanwhile, PTCL denied blocking the website in a twitter message.
Asad, There’s nothing wrong at our end, the website is accessible over the network, DM us the details for more assistance.
— PTCL (@PTCLOfficial) June 3, 2018
On the other hand, while exclusively talking to DRM, AWP Islamabad/Rawalpindi District Information Secretary Fahad Desmukh confirmed that the website had been blocked across Pakistan. “We haven’t done extensive testing ourselves, but we have received reports of blockage on multiple networks including Nayatel, Mobilink and PTCL.” He added that people were getting “Surf Safely” message which indicated that the blocking was done by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA.
It is to be noted that under Section 37 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016, PECA, PTA is empowered to take down online content.
“The Authority shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act,” reads the act.
When asked whether the party was informed about the censorship directly from PTA, Mr. Fahad said: “Nobody within the party was informed by PTA about the blockage.” He noted that he only came to know about it through friends and colleagues. “The first intimation I received from a colleague was around 5 PM,” he said adding that they began receiving messages and tweets online around the same time.
In response to a question, Desmukh said that this was the first time that the website of the party had been blocked.
When asked about the reason for this blockage, Mr. Fahad said that the party was “clueless” about the possible reasons of censorship. He emphasized that the website had public statements that were within the bounds of the constitution. “Sometimes things happen without legal cause within Pakistan. We have seen in the past how things happen arbitrarily. This could be another arbitrary censorship. But right now I cannot give you a clear reason for this censorship,” he said.
Sharing his thoughts on the way forward, Mr. Fahad said the the party was considering the option of taking this matter to the High Court, but quickly clarified that it was not final yet. “What we have heard from the legal advisers is that if we go to PTA, you have to give them 30 days to respond,” he said.
Mr. Desmukh stated that given the fact that there was hardly limited time left before the elections and that they were to kick off their elections campaign on Wednesday next week, the urgency of the matter warranted that they approached High Court directly for the immediate relief in this matter.
When asked what disadvantage the party would have if the website was not restored soon, Mr. Fahad remarked: “We are in the process of preparing elections material to go onto the website. There will be profiles of the candidates and also ways for people to reach out to us and participate in the campaign. Our election manifesto is already on the website.” He added that it was unfortunate to see their website blocked at this point in time.
When asked, if they had made any pledges within their Elections manifesto to safeguard digital rights and prevent arbitrary online censorship, Mr. Desmukh said: “In the manifesto, we don’t have anything explicit. Our official campaign launch will be on Wednesday (next week) when we will be addressing a lot of issues and possibly this one as well. “
However, Mr. Fahad insisted that they had a lot of internal discussion about these issues “specifically about privacy, the role the technology plays in supporting those in power rather than the masses.”
Reiterating the party stance on technology, Mr. Fahad said: “Technology should be for the people. It should be supporting people who are actual workers rather than those (companies) who are making more and more money. Rather than making a more equal society, promoting equality in society, we have seen that the violation of (online) privacy has made a situation where you are creating more and more unequal society.”
Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.