(Islamabad, July 7, 2023):  Pakistani citizens have endured 24 network shutdowns in 2022 alone, marking a 58% increase compared to the previous year. Bytes for All, Pakistan (B4A) raises concerns over the alarming trend of network shutdown infringing upon civil, political and socio-economic rights of Pakistani citizens.  Political turmoil, religious observances, security threats, and natural disasters like floods were among other instances of network closures in 2022. B4A has been maintaining a timeline of network shutdowns since the year 2012 at www.killswitch.pk. It is also important to note that Pakistan’s Islamabad High Court had also declared Network Shutdowns to be illegal in a judgement on Feb 26, 2018.

B4A launches the report titled “Pakistan’s Network Shutdown Report– An analysis of network shutdowns in Pakistan during 2022”. This in-depth report examines the intricate dynamics between civil, economic and political rights and the pattern of network shutdowns in Pakistan.

The arbitrary use of executive powers with regards to suspending networks is becoming the cause of infringement upon wider fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to information, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, association, and business rights protected under Articles 19, 19-A, 16, 17, and 18, respectively.  It is the constitutional responsibility of the federal government and the judiciary to uphold these fundamental rights.

In recent years, a troubling trend has emerged, with incumbent governments resorting to the disruption of cellular networks and internet services as a means to handle law and order situations and ensure national security. While the justifications for network shutdowns can vary, they are often attributed to security concerns or the prevention of the spread of misinformation during periods of unrest.

Following the global outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, the internet has played a vital role in various aspects of life, including education, e-commerce, digital entrepreneurship, and communication. However, information dark areas such as Balochistan, South Punjab, parts of Sindh, Gilgit Baltistan, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir continue to face a digital divide, struggling to pursue their educational and professional activities due to the unavailability of internet and cellular signals. Districts in Balochistan province, including Panjgur, Awaran, Turbat, and others, have experienced blockages of 3G/4G services for years.

The situation demands immediate attention from the government of Pakistan to prioritize the preservation of fundamental rights and ensure the uninterrupted availability of internet and cellular services. It is essential to strike a balance between maintaining law and order and respecting the rights of citizens to access information and communicate freely.

The regular practice of shutting down networks began in 2012, when the then government of Pakistan ordered a suspension of cellular services during the observance of Pakistan Day on March 23, 2012. The shutdown was implemented to mitigate potential terrorist threats during the celebrations. Other events include the shutdown of cellular networks in Islamabad during the 2014 protests led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the shutdowns in various parts of the country during the 2019 protests led by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). These measures were taken to curb the dissemination of rumors and maintain public order.

While network shutdowns are intended to maintain law and order, they have a significant impact on the lives of citizens, affecting their ability to access emergency services, communicate with loved ones, and conduct business. The United Nations has declared network shutdowns as a violation of human rights, and several countries have banned the practice. Despite this, network shutdowns continue to occur in Pakistan and other countries worldwide.

The report is available at: https://bytesforall.pk/publication/pakistan-network-shutdown-report-2022

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