Digital rights group terms mobile phone service suspension ‘inherently undemocratic’
February 8, 2024 12:00 PM
Global internet watchdog NetBlocks has described the suspension of internet and mobile phone services in Pakistan on election day as “inherently undemocratic”.
The Pakistani government suspended mobile phone services nationwide Thursday for election day, in a move the digital rights group said was "inherently undemocratic".
A statement from the interior ministry said that "precious lives have been lost" in recent militant attacks and such "security measures are essential to maintain the law and order situation and to deal with potential threats".
NetBlocks, a global internet watchdog, said data confirmed there was a disruption to mobile phone and internet services "corroborating widespread user reports of outages".
"The ongoing election day internet blackout in Pakistan is amongst the largest we've observed in any country in terms of severity and extent," NetBlocks director Alp Toker told AFP.
"The practice is inherently undemocratic and is known to limit the work of independent election observers and cause irregularities in the voting process."
The election has already been marred by allegations of pre-vote rigging, and pollsters have predicted a low turnout following the jailing of former prime minister Imran Khan and the hobbling of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said it was "an ominous start to election day".
"It's clear, based on the steps they took as soon as the polls opened, that the powers that be remain concerned about the PTI's possible electoral impact. Especially its turnout potential," he said.
Mobile phone services were not disrupted in 2018, when analysts said security concerns were greater, with a bombing at an election rally killing more than 140 people.
On that election day, more than 30 people were killed in a blast in Quetta claimed by a chapter of the Islamic state.
Pakistan's authorities regularly cut access to mobile phones during major protests or during festivals when religious tensions rise, to prevent militants from communicating with each other.
Jammers are also used to prevent bombs being triggered via mobile phone.
Internet and access to social media has been disrupted several times during the election campaign, coinciding with opposition online live-streams.
The government blamed the outages on "technical difficulties" but the PTI said it was an attempt to disrupt their campaign, which has already been heavily sidelined.
PTI information secretary Raoof Hasan told AFP the outage "will impede the work that our activists are doing on the ground to get people to the polling stations".
"The physical space given to us has been completely cut out so we are totally dependent on connectivity through the net," he said.