Silenced voices: The X and VPN ban after Pakistan’s elections

Journalists waiting for the results at the premises of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). February 8, 2023. Image by Ramna Saeed. Used with permission.

Journalists waiting for the results of the election to be announced at the premises of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). February 8, 2024. Image by Ramna Saeed. Used with permission.

Following the recent elections in Pakistan, the country is grappling with a critical situation as the establishment of a new government is mired in uncertainty.

Over two weeks after the elections on February 8, it seems unlikely that the caretaker government will fulfil its promise of a smooth handover given the current political landscape. However, amid this political turmoil, an effort to stifle the voices of the people of the country has emerged in the form of a ban on X (formerly Twitter) and VPN services again. Earlier, on election day, the internet was shut down for a couple days causing chaos in the country.

Read More: Pakistan’s general elections: AI, internet shutdowns and disillusionment

After the elections, Pakistan was supposed to continue with a new government. However, things have not unfolded as anticipated, given that no single political party has secured a clear majority. Currently, political parties are engaged in negotiations with each other to determine who will form alliances to govern the country. This uncertainty has dampened people's hopes regarding Pakistan's future trajectory.

Read More: Pakistan’s political landscape: What to expect from the 2024 elections

Social media ban

Amidst the uncertainties due to the delayed results and no clear winner, the social media platform X has been inaccessible again since February 17. On the same day, Liaqat Ali Chattha, commissioner of Rawalpindi, announced his involvement in rigging that occurred during the general elections, an allegation that was refuted by the sitting Chief Justice of Pakistan. Later, Chattha retracted his statements, claiming that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had offered him a ‘lucrative position’ in exchange for making rigging allegations. The ban could be connected to this.

Another speculation is that the ban was imposed after the PTI protested against the alleged rigging and when PTI-backed National Assembly seat aspirant Salman Akram Raja was briefly detained by the police. As on February 24, X had been inaccessible for a week.

The shutdown did not deter people from using the platform; instead, they resorted to accessing X through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to express themselves and condemn the caretaker setup in the country. However, shortly afterward, several VPNs stopped working as well.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned the shutdown:

Usama Khilji, a digital rights activist, asked the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) and Umar Saif, the IT Minister, to respond on why VPNs were being blocked too:

Javeria Siddiqui, a journalist, speaks about the internet being slow:

Users like digital media marketer Anas Tipu suggested working VPNs for others to use:

Seerat Khan, a digital rights activist, asks the PTA how these blatant violations are justified:

The court questions the PTA

On February 21, during a hearing against the internet shutdowns, Chief Justice Aqeel Ahmed Abbasi of the Sindh High Court criticized the PTA and the Ministry of Interior and IT for the repeated shutdowns and throttling of internet services. He questioned when the internet would be fully restored. The PTA responded by stating that it is a regulatory body and follows instructions issued by the Ministry of Interior. On February 8, it suspended mobile and internet services based on reports from intelligence agencies. Meanwhile, the federal government maintained that the internet services were suspended in response to requests from provincial governments. On the other hand, a lawyer representing the Sindh government denied giving such instructions to the federal government.

Just before the elections, rights activist Advocate Jibran Nasir petitioned the Sindh High Court (SHC) against the PTA and the Ministry of Interior and IT regarding repeated shutdowns and throttling of internet services, which were impacting candidates’ election campaigns and people's rights to information under the constitution. The SHC issued a stay order on the case and directed the authorities not to shut down internet services during elections.

Protest outside Islamabad Press Club against alleged rigging in the elections. Image by Ramna Saeed. Used with permission.

Protest outside Islamabad Press Club against alleged rigging in the elections. Image by Ramna Saeed. Used with permission.

Keeping a close watch on Pakistan’s shutdown:

Internet watchdogs have been closely monitoring a spike in shutdowns in Pakistan and giving out reports. Cybersecurity organization Surfshark released its 2023 report, which states that there were four shutdowns in Pakistan in just one year, based on political reasons.

Access Now highlights how the Sindh High Court's orders are being violated:

The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) releases real time data of ISPs in Pakistan:

Netblock mentions that social media platform X has been blocked in Pakistan for seven days:

History of shutdowns

This is not the first time Pakistan has witnessed a shutdown of the internet or a specific social media platform. Since 2006, internet users have faced shutdowns of platforms like Blogspot, YouTube, and Facebook, mostly due to the allegedly blasphemous content available on them. However, there were also occasions when the internet was inaccessible on festival days due to security reasons. In recent times, internet access, mobile services, and social media apps have been blocked or throttled due to political upheaval in the country.

Last year, when former prime minister Imran Khan was arrested on May 9, 2023, the public was deprived of internet access for days. In December, just as the election campaigns for the general elections on February 8 were gaining momentum, various social media platforms were shut down.

Sardar Mohsin Abbasi, the candidate for the National Assembly backed by the Pakistan Muslim League (N) or PMLN, told Global Voices via WhatsApp: “The reason for the ban on Twitter is to break the control and monopoly created by the PTI leadership through their workers to influence the political opinion of Pakistani citizens and to impose a climate of censorship on the country’s citizens.”

Iqbal Khattak from the Freedom Network Pakistan informed Global Voices via WhatsApp: “Pakistan has a notorious track record of shutting down the internet during periods of political turmoil. This approach is misdirected and violates citizens’ fundamental rights.”

Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy told Global Voices: “In the era we live in, the internet and mobile are important tools in our lives. When the shutdowns happen, it impacts political mobilization; citizens face challenges of mobility, and it also curbs their right to freedom of expression.”

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