November 30, 2020 – Residents in Multan reported mobile networks’ suspension in the city this morning. The news of the suspension comes ahead of the rally organised by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition of opposition political parties, in the city. The authorities suspended the networks without a prior public notice.
The big picture: The rally is expected to host crowds from across Punjab in Multan, and is being organised by the PDM to demand democratic processes from the sitting government. This rally is a part of the series of jalsas organised by the coalition that focuses on demanding accountability from the ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and its government in the country. The local administration and the government denied permission to PDM to hold rallies owing to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
The coalition has, at multiple times, been criticised by the government, its officials and the prime minister Imran Khan himself, who has lambasted the PDM on his official Twitter account for risking people’s lives by holding rallies.
On November 16, the Prime Minister announced the decision of banning all kinds of political rallies in the country in the wake of the increasing cases of COVID-19. Reuters reports that the PM said on national TV that, “We have decided to ban public gatherings in the country, including ours planned over the weekend, as large crowds help in the spread of the virus.”
However, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in its statement on November 29, condemned the Punjab government’s employment of armed forces in Multan ahead of the rally, and highlighted that the authorities themselves allowed a major gathering on the funeral of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), in Lahore.
HRCP further highlights that, “The government must refrain from measures that suppress the legal and constitutional rights of citizens.”
Along with putting heavy security in place, as per news, the government also blocked mobile networks across the city. This kind of suspension has in the past been done in the name of security measures in, what the authorities claim, to ensure law and order in the vicinity.
Why it matters: The arbitrary suspension of mobile networks was challenged in Islamabad High Court (IHC) in 2018 that ruled these suspensions unconstitutional. This judgement was later challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in April 2020. The apex court rejected the IHC order and ruled that the federal government can continue to order suspension of mobile networks in the country as a security measure.
However, civil rights groups argue that network suspensions infringe on people’s rights and ability to communicate, and leads to further chaos in the affected area. Mobile connectivity not only plays a crucial role in the exercise of fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information, but also enables citizens to exercise the right to mobility that is increasingly becoming dependent on a working connection.
It is imperative to highlight that the ability to communicate becomes most important in times of chaos and any political or security instability as the need to connect with family and friends is amplified during any untoward incident. Asad Baig, founder of Media Matters for Democracy, said, “There is no direct evidence that shows the efficacy of network shutdowns in controlling law and order. […] The Internet has become a primary source of information for individuals around the world. Access to information becomes more important during emergencies. It is, thus, even more important to maintain access to the Internet during crises.”
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran