Living off the grid: practicing journalism in Baluchistan without mobile Internet

“Finally, the mobile internet has been restored in Dalbandin!” rejoiced Ali Raza, a local journalist from Baluchistan, posting this status over the Facebook as he announced the resumption of mobile internet in his city. The news was Christmas came early for the residents of Baluchistan. Internet had remained suspended since February 2017.  “We had been living without internet for the past nine months”, remarked Ali talking to this scribe. His friends from other districts of Baluchistan continued to send in congratulations as they nervously hoped that the internet would soon be restored in their towns as well.

However, little did they know that this happiness was short-lived. The very next day, mobile internet was shut down again. Confused at what had happened, Ali desperately tried to know what went wrong. It turned out that “Warid had opened their mobile internet to undertake maintenance work”,  shared Raza. In the midst of this, Ufone ‘assumed’ that they could also restore the services. “The next day, PTA forced them to shut down the internet and also imposed hefty fines on Ufone”.

“Many students rely on the internet to find out date sheet and fetch roll number slips. Some of them had to eventually go to Quetta to fetch their roll number slips and appear in exams” — Ismail Rodeni, a local journalist from Balochistan.

Dalbandin is not the only district of Baluchistan where mobile internet remains suspended. According to journalist sources, it is also disconnected in areas including Qilla Abdullah, Qalat, and Panjgur since February 2017. According to officials at Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom, the network shutdown has taken place keeping in view the security situation at the request of law enforcement agencies.

The scribe talked to a number of local journalists about the impact of the Internet shut down upon their lives. All of them expressed frustration at the way this disruption was limiting their social interaction.

For instance, undergraduate students from Qalat faced challenges in getting their roll number slips for BA exams. “Many students rely on the internet to find out date sheet and fetch roll number slips,” remarked Ismail Rodeni, a local journalist. “Some of them had to eventually go to Quetta to fetch their roll number slips and appear in exams,” he said.

Meanwhile, people in Ali Raza’s hometown Dalbandin are irked for not being able to talk to their relatives living abroad. “A number of people having relatives in Afghanistan and Iran are not able to keep in touch with them”. However, when he was reminded that this was the channel that terrorists might be using to plan attacks, he said, “criminal elements do not face problems as they use satellite internet in border areas”.

On a positive note, broadband internet distributed through landlines is working in all of the aforementioned areas.  However, not everyone has access to broadband at home. “Firstly, the cables were laid down by the 1980s in 1980s when there was no population in the area where I now live“, noted Barkat Baluch from Panjgur.  He added that the only affordable alternative to broadband was mobile internet which is now shut down. “In my situation, where there is no broadband access in my area (Panjgur), people rely on the mobile internet to communicate,” lamented Barkat.

However, even if broadband is available in some areas, it is hard for the people of Baluchistan to bear the costs of cable internet. “The people of Baluchistan are poor and cannot afford to have a dedicated connection in their homes”, remarked Barkat.

Probably the most significant casualty of the mobile internet shutdown is journalism. Journalists have unequivocally expressed frustration at not being able to actively report on issues. “We have to take pictures, share videos with our newsroom as part of our work,” said Ali Raza. “However, with no 3G and 4G mobile internet, we are restricted to DSL internet in our offices”.  However, Barkat lamented that the slow speed of office internet made it difficult for journalists to efficiently complete tasks. “How can you work when you receive internet speed in Kps instead of Mbs?”

Some parliamentarians from Baluchistan including Member National Assembly including Usman Badini have raised the closure of network shutdown on the floor of the parliament.  But even he is clueless about the resumption of mobile internet service.

Meanwhile, officials at MOITT continue to remain tightlipped about the mobile internet shutdown and refuse to share when the mobile internet services will be resumed. “We have communicated this to the parliament that the mobile internet was shut down at the request of law enforcement agencies owing to security situation”. The MOITT official refused to share when the mobile internet will be restored.

However, local journalists refuse to buy this argument. “How is the security situation of Quetta better than Panjgur”, Barkat shot back. He insisted that his hometown was peaceful and did not have any criminal and terror elements within its vicinity.

Haroon Baloch from Bytes for All noted with concern that network shut down under the pretext of terrorism was not a new phenomenon. “Since 2007-08, a new narrative has been generated whereby in order to control terrorism, our government does not shy away from infringing upon digital rights. It is with the same spirit that the mobile internet has been suspended in three districts of Baluchistan.” He added that the government was adding to their woes as already the basic facilities of life in Baluchistan were limited.

In July 2016, United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC, passed a resolution that recognized internet as a human right. It also called upon states to “consider formulating, through transparent and inclusive processes with all stakeholders, and adopting national Internet-related public policies that have the objective of universal access and enjoyment of human rights at their core.”

Will Pakistan, as a responsible member of UNHRC, respect the aforementioned UNHRC’s resolution? Will it give back its citizens from Baluchistan, their fundamental right to access the mobile internet? The question will be answered in days to come.

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