Pakistan’s disconnected election
Polling in Pakistan’s long-awaited general election on February 8 started at 8 am, which is the same time mobile networks were shut down throughout the country for more than 26 hours. Pakistanis are no strangers to network shutdowns. Often at times of a national day parade, Eid, Ashura, protests that criticize the establishment, and political rallies, there is a lack of connectivity.
In the past year alone, mobile networks were shut down for four days after protests broke out when former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested by paramilitary forces outside the Islamabad High Court despite getting bail in May. Then, in December 2023 and twice in January 2024, all social media platforms were blocked lasting the duration of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) virtual rallies after crackdowns on physical rallies.
This led to substantial fears regarding shutting down of mobile networks and Internet connectivity during the February 8 national and provincial elections, with conflicting signaling from the state causing uncertainty. The caretaker information and interior ministers in their press conference said there would be no network or Internet shutdowns on election day unless requested by a district or province. The Balochistan interior minister announced network shutdowns in Turbat, Kech, and Chaman areas of Balochistan in advance of the polls. Meanwhile, the Sindh High Court instructed the caretaker government against any network or Internet disruption during or around the election.
This uncertainty already impacted the sense of safety of citizens, especially those who had to venture farther than their locality to cast votes. There are several severe impacts of network shutdowns on the polling process as well as on citizens in general.
When India turned off the Internet in Kashmir, Pakistan set up a clock in the capital tracking the duration of it. It is ironic to put our own citizens through the same when we condemn it abroad.
First, network shutdowns violate the fundamental constitutional rights of citizens. On election day, access to information is paramount. The Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) SMS line 8300 informs citizens of their polling station, block code, and constituency numbers of provincial and well as national assemblies. Without network connectivity, citizens could not readily access this information if required. This was especially necessary as members of the same families found out that their polling stations were different than other members of the same household in several instances. Further, information regarding election symbols of candidates, especially in face of a Supreme Court order stripping the PTI of their election symbol meant that their candidates had different symbols in all constituencies. This undermined the right to freedom of association. The right to freedom of speech without access to social media was also impacted, especially when the need to inform public of irregularities arose. The media also could not coordinate and report with ease without connectivity.
Second, network shutdowns breed disinformation when access to information is unavailable. Word of mouth can be unreliable and unverifiable without access to the Internet or mobile networks. It also enables actors that want to spread disinformation to act with impunity as at the critical time of polls there is little opportunity for fact-checking or triangulation.
Third, the integrity of election results itself is impacted because of network shutdowns. Without the ability to communicate, polling agents and voters are unable to report irregularities in real time. It also creates uncertainty and fear in the minds of voters, potentially discouraging them from going to the polling stations. The inability to access emergency services such as ambulance, police, or fire-fighting services creates further fear for citizens. The mobility of women is more gravely impacted out of fear of harassment or sexual violence, that they would be unable to report in a society where harassment is rampant. Further, network shutdown is an additional reason for the public to cast doubt on the integrity of the election as it is seen as a tool of the state to interfere in the post-poll process of vote counting, especially as the process was delayed past the stipulated time of 2 am after polls close as per election rules.
Lastly, the economic cost of network shutdowns is very high. Global Internet shutdowns monitor Netblocks estimates that each day of network shutdown in Pakistan causes a loss of $53 million. Another estimate by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) puts the cost at 1.3 billion Pakistani rupees. Daily wage earners of tech-based platforms such as food delivery, courier, and ride hailing services take a disproportionate hit. Small businesses suffer the most, as do individuals such as freelancers and businesses offering information technology services to global clients. Even commercial payment services at shops stop working.
All of this is done in the name of security, but there has never been a substantiation of the link between mobile connectivity and security. If anything, connectivity enables more security as timely information can be shared by those impacted, law enforcement can communicate quickly, and criminals can be tracked quicker. Network shutdowns serve as a form of collective punishment which is disproportionate in its impact on citizens.
As political parties and candidates took to the election commission and courts against the network shutdown, it is essential that the new elected legislature outlaws the draconian and illogical practice of network shutdowns, which belongs in the worst dictatorships and the most cruel regimes. When India turned off the Internet in Kashmir, Pakistan set up a clock in the capital tracking the duration of it. It is ironic to put our own citizens through the same when we condemn it abroad.
– Usama Khilji is the Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Tweets at @UsamaKhilji