Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan in fresh wave of agitation

Supporters of Pakistani radical cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman listen to their leaders at a protest march in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday on Nov. 13, 2019. (AP)
Updated 14 November 2019

Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan in fresh wave of agitation

  • Firebrand cleric leading the protests called for cross-country agitation
  • Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to step down as thousands of protesters camped in Islamabad for two weeks

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s anti-government protesters on Thursday blocked major roads and highways in different parts of the country in a bid to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign, demanding fresh elections in the country.
The demonstrators led by opposition leader and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, launched street agitation as part of their “Plan B” to topple the government after failing to push Khan out through a two-week long protest sit-in in Islamabad. 
“This protest will continue not for a day but for a month if our leadership instructs,” said JUI-F secretary general, Maulana Nasir Mehmood, while addressing a group of protesters who blocked the country’s main Karakoram Highway — an important trade route between Pakistan and China that also connects the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province with its picturesque northern areas.
The JUI-F protesters also blocked other key routes in KP and a main connecting Sindh and Balochistan provinces.
The party’s Balochistan chapter further announced to block the highway connecting Pakistan to neighboring Iran.
Firebrand religious cleric, Rahman, on Wednesday announced to call off his two-week long anti-government sit-in in Islamabad and told his party workers to spread their protest to other parts of the country.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators reached Islamabad on October 31 where they camped for about two weeks, demanding the prime minister’s resignation and fresh polls in the country over the allegations of electoral fraud last year and mismanagement of Pakistan’s economy. The government denies both charges.
Rehman is a veteran politician who enjoys support in religious circles across the country and has a representation in the country’s parliament. As for the closure of the roads, his party has yet to share a detailed plan as to when and where a road would be closed and how long would the new phase of the protest continue.
The JUI-F and other opposition parties have been trying to capitalize on the anger and frustration of the masses against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) administration that came to power last year, promising ten million new jobs for the youth, five million low-cost houses and economic reforms to benefit the middle class.
But the economy has nosedived with double-digit inflation and rampant unemployment due to the closure of industry, as the government signed a $6 billion bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan has stabilized the deteriorating economy … and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s ‘Plan B’ will fail like his ‘Plan A,’” Firdous Ashiq Awan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, told media.


Critics cry foul as Pakistan looks to curb coronavirus 'fake news' on social media

Updated 14 min 29 sec ago

Critics cry foul as Pakistan looks to curb coronavirus 'fake news' on social media

  • Government sets up committee to prepare new “legal framework” to tackle coronavirus-related misinformation
  • Rights activists fear the new laws will be used to choke freedom of speech

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister said on Thursday the government planned to introduce new laws to curb coronavirus misinformation on social media platforms in a move that has stoked fears authorities will use the additional powers to choke freedom of speech and chill dissent.
On Wednesday, the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), a top federal body set up to oversee the government’s coronavirus mitigation efforts, set up a committee under the chairmanship of the interior minister to prepare a legal framework to help the government deal with coronavirus-related “fake news” on social media platforms.
Islamabad has previously struggled to regulate online content mostly by blocking or asking social media companies to remove blasphemous material and other posts that violate the country’s religious and cultural norms and laws or hurt national security interests.
In February, the government approved, and then rolled back, new rules to regulate cyberspace after opponents said they could be used to stifle dissent. Social media companies have also largely shunned obliging to help law enforcement agencies access data and remove online content deemed unlawful.
“Is the government a fool?” the interior minister said to Arab News on Thursday when asked if the NCOC had set up the new committee on the pretext of curtailing free speech or criticism of the government’s coronavirus mitigation policies. “If somebody asks me to suppress social media, I’ll straightaway say that I can’t do it.”
However, he said, the government was resolved to find ways to prevent the flow of false information regarding the pandemic.
These efforts, rights activists say, would allow the government to use the pandemic as an “excuse” to suppress freedom of speech.
“Social media companies have themselves been taking down disinformation and propaganda regarding COVID-19 since such posts go against their community standards,” Usama Khilji, director of Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi, told Arab News, urging the government to improve coordination with social media giants like Twitter and Facebook in order to have inaccurate information removed instead of enacting new “draconian rules.”
Last month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued an advisory to local media houses instructing them not to air coronavirus-related content that was “not based on ground realities” and was likely to create “unnecessary panic.” 
The advisory was seen as a warning to critics of the government’s efforts to fight growing rates of infection.
“If the government wants to counter online disinformation, it can do it by releasing authentic information instead of coercing journalists and media houses,” Iqbal Khattak, who represents Reporters Without Borders in Pakistan, told Arab News. “It must immediately drop its plan to enact new social media rules since we already know its objective is to undermine freedom of expression.”