In Pakistan’s remote regions, internet blackouts push education out of reach for millions

A Pakistani student writes a sentence on a blackboard at a government school in Peshawar on Oct. 25, 2012. (AFP/File)
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Updated 18 July 2020

In Pakistan’s remote regions, internet blackouts push education out of reach for millions

  • Hundreds of students across Pakistan have protested against poor connectivity as universities move to online classes over coronavirus fears
  • 'Security concerns' often used as pretext for curtailing digital rights in remote provinces, internet advocacy groups say

PESHAWAR: As students in Pakistan’s most remote regions continue protests against connectivity problems that have hampered their ability to shift to online learning after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered universities, officials and private internet companies say ‘security concerns’ in volatile parts of the country could mean internet blackouts are here to stay. 
Since last month, hundreds of students across Pakistan have been protesting a government decision that universities hold classes online, even as poor internet services remain a major problem in many regions of the country, particularly violence- and poverty-racked Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. 
In late February of 2017, 3G/4G mobile internet services were suspended in Kech district in Balochistan, the site of a long-running conflict between security forces and separatists. At the time, security officials cited “security reasons” for the blackout. The services remain suspended to date. 
In large swaths of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, particularly the parts that formed the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) long plagued by militancy, the government has regularly restricted access to the internet or blocked it completely for “security reasons.” Except for a few areas in Bajaur district, 3G/4G internet service is not available in the tribal areas. 
In parts of Pakistan’s mountainous far north in Gilgit-Baltistan and disputed Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), the auction process of 3G/4G internet services has remained in limbo for years. 
Officials in Pakistan have often used ‘security’ as a pretext to curtail rights, including to the internet, rights groups say. 
Ziaullah Bangash, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister’s advisor on technology, told Arab News the provincial government was aware of the issue of connectivity and the problems this was causing students. He said Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd. (PTCL) had recently won a contract to lay fiber optic cables in tribal districts and work on the project would kick off soon. 
“When universities and colleges reopen in September, students will get internet at their respective educational institutions,” Bangash said, adding that infrastructure, including for 3G/4G services, was being developed in the tribal areas. 
The military’s media wing, the Inter-Service Public Relations, was asked whether internet blackouts in areas in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, were due to "security concerns," but declined comment on the subject. 
However, a senior official who requested not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media told Arab News that private mobile and internet service-providers were reluctant to invest in the tribal districts or parts of Balochistan because of persisting security threats in the volatile areas. 
“You saw mobile phone towers were blown up in tribal districts [by militants], triggering fear among private phone companies to invest there,” the official said. 
Khurram Mehran, a spokesperson for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), declined comment for this piece. 
Across Pakistan, low levels of digital literacy and relatively poor network quality are major impediments to internet inclusion. Internet access stands at around 35 percent of the population, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections, according to digital rights groups. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2020, Pakistan falls into the last quartile of index countries overall, and ranks 24th out of 26 Asian countries. Now, the coronavirus has even more profoundly exposed the digital divide.
Faizullah Faraq, a spokesperson for the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, acknowledged that students had held protests over low-speed internet being provided by the government-run Special Communication Organization to the region’s 1.5 million people. However, he said private Internet Service Providers were unwilling to invest in the area because of expected low revenues from such a small population.
“Chief Minister Mir Afzal Khan and other senior military officials have held sessions with male and female students of Karakoram International University, assuring them uninterrupted and high internet speed,” Faraq said. 
Nadeem Aslam, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education secretary, told Arab News an “inclusive strategy” had been devised to provide students with uninterrupted internet supply at universities once they reopened in September.
Meanwhile, students continue to suffer. 
Muhammad Akram from the poor and remote South Waziristan tribal district was studying civil engineering at COMSATS University in Abbottabad but had to return home once universities shut down in March. Now, in order to be able to continue with online learning, he has to live at a relative’s house in Dera Ismail Khan, the nearest district to South Waziristan where the internet is available. 
“We have employed all peaceful options such as protests and sit-ins for the extension of fiber optic connectivity throughout the tribal belt but to no avail,” Akram said. 
Hameed Ullah Khan from Kohistan, a student at Khyber Medical College, complained that without uninterrupted internet, online classes were a waste of time and money: “Internet fluctuates, reconnecting and disconnecting every moment. Online classes are simply a joke with students.”
Zaffar Zahid, a student at Jhalawan Medical College Khuzdar in Balochistan, said the students of the region were going to fall behind unless authorities took action. 
“How can you take online classes in areas when sending a simple text message takes so long?” he said. “I fear students of Balochistan will miss their semesters.”
Usama Khilji, director of digital rights group Bolo Bhi, said the government held millions of dollars under the Universal Service Fund (USF) - which comprises contributions (1.5% of adjusted revenues) by all telecom operators in Pakistan - which it needed to utilize to expand internet access to underserved areas in Pakistan.
“There has been no formal reasoning for authorities’ reluctance to extend 3G/4G services in ex-FATA, Gilgit Baltistan, and Balochistan,” Khilji said. 
“There has been no conclusive evidence that internet provision impacts security,” he added. “This is unfair to millions of citizens who are discriminated by virtue of their geographical location when everyone is entitled to equal treatment and opportunities.”


Lawyer for Daniel Pearl's family faces uphill legal fight

Updated 15 January 2021

Lawyer for Daniel Pearl's family faces uphill legal fight

  • Faisal Siddiqi says overturning even the kidnapping for ransom charge will send Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh back to death row
  • Sheikh, who allegedly lured Pearl to his death, was acquitted in April due to insufficient evidence

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani lawyer for the family of slain American journalist Daniel Pearl faces an uphill battle to overturn the acquittal of a British-born man convicted in the 2002 murder.

That's because the prosecutor in the original case tried all four men — including Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man believed to have lured Pearl to his death — as one, with the same charges against all even though each played a different role.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Faisal Siddiqi, the lawyer for Pearl’s family, said that although the initial prosecution had painted the four defendants with the same brush, “You don’t, because of doubt in one or two or three pieces (of evidence), acquit them all.”

The four men were acquitted in April on the grounds that the initial prosecution’s evidence was insufficient. Siddiqi said his argument now before the Supreme Court, Pakistan's highest, is that conspiracy, kidnapping for ransom and murder deserve separate consideration.

Siddiqi said the Supreme Court hearing to overturn the acquittals will resume Tuesday, and most likely reach its conclusion before the end of January. Both the Pearl family as well as Pakistan’s government separately have appealed the acquittals.

Siddiqi said overturning even the kidnapping for ransom charge would send Sheikh back to death row, where he'd been since his conviction in 2002. He was transferred to a jail in the port city of Karachi in Sindh province, after the Sindh High Court overturned his conviction. The three others charged in Pearl's murder — Fahad Naseem, Adil Sheikh and Salman Saqib — were acquitted on all charges.

Sheikh was sentenced to death, and the other three to life in prison for their roles in Pearl's murder.

Siddiqi said he’s argued that the judges have a duty to both the accused and the victim, and while “no innocent person should be convicted ... no guilty person should be set free.”

The Pearl family’s lawyer said the overwhelming sentiment is “whenever there is a doubt, let us free the accused, never thinking what happened to the victim,” adding that he's asking the judges to “restore the balance between the accused and the victim.”

The acquittal outraged the United States, and last month the US warned it won’t allow Sheikh to escape justice. Acting US Attorney General Jeffery Rosen praised Pakistan for appealing the Sindh court’s order but said if “those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial” in America.

Sheikh remains in jail even as the Sindh High Court last month ordered him freed while the appeal is being heard. Sheikh's lawyer, Mehmood A. Sheikh, no relation, has taken the demand for his client's freedom to the Supreme Court. Until now it has not ruled on the release.

Siddiqi said the prosecutor in Sheikh's original trial was held under considerable duress caused by militant Islamists, who issued threats to the attorney general, and which even forced the court hearing to be held within the confines of the jail.

Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in Karachi, where he was kidnapped. Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, dubbed the “Shoe Bomber” after trying to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.

A gruesome video of Pearl’s beheading was sent to the US Consulate. The 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter from Encino, California was abducted Jan. 23, 2002.