Feb 5. 2024

Staff report


Lahore: 

Internet users in Balochistan are anticipating a significant internet and mobile blackout on election day. Such disruptions have unfortunately become a regular part of their lives, causing little surprise. But, the prospect of navigating the day without sharing critical information, videos, and images of the day’s events is indeed frustrating for them.

This situation goes beyond mere inconvenience for them. Instead, it is a matter of life and death, given the sensitive security situation reported by locals. With an increase in terror attacks in recent days, the pressing concern is how, in the event of a security threat or violations in the election systems, they will communicate their reservations to those in control.

“In the event of an internet shutdown on election day, and if there were to be an attack or fraudulent activities at any polling station in our area, we would be unable to inform the rest of the world about it,” says Safar Khan, a rights activist based in Kharan in Balochistan.

“The law and order situation is critical across the country. It is not unique to Balochistan,” says Akhtar Mengal, President Balochistan National Party. “The security agencies are deliberately trying to spread threat in my province in an attempt to disturb the election process and further isolate it.”

On the election day, in particular, “Any disruption in the connectivity will undeservedly isolate Balochistan from the rest of the country,” says Mengal. “In fact, a low connection will only magnify the area’s perceived remoteness.”

He explains that they have plans, similar to any other constituency, where polling agents would notify them of any irregularities. In Balochistan, however, “the polling stations are widely scattered, and communication is possible only through phone networks.”

The deliberate disruptions of internet and mobile networks on sensitive occasions “is contrary to the provisions of the constitution of Pakistan, especially Article 19 and 19A that guarantee freedom of expression and the right to information,” says Usama Khilji, activist and director BoloBhi.

“I think it also violates the right to association under Article 17 because now young people access information especially regarding their political candidates and parties through the internet. Once that is blocked, they’re not able to organise, mobilise or participate politically.

Besides, on election day, one needs information, such as, “where your polling station is, what your constituency is, what the symbol for your candidate is. Then there’s the issue of security and coordination… When there’s internet and mobile blackout or communication outage, it creates a sense of panic if people are unable to get in touch with their family or friends,” adds Khilji.

More importantly, he says, “instances of rigging cannot be reported”.

So, he adds, “for all of these reasons, there should be no internet outages” anywhere in the country, not just in Balochistan.

Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan, stands out as the most reliable city in the region in terms of internet stability. However, areas farther away from the capital experience consistently low connectivity on any day. Safar Khan adds, “For the past month, we’ve been grappling with challenges in internet access in Kharan. The speed often slows down, and at times, it completely shuts off. We find ourselves talking on the phone, and suddenly the line drops.”

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