October 31, 2019: Mobile data services were suspended in parts of Islamabad, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to restrict live streaming of the ‘Azadi March’ organized and led by the opposition parties, mainly the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F).
Screenshots of internal communication between what seems to be employees of a telecommunication company were shared by the senior journalist Murtaza Solangi on Twitter. The tweet confirmed the speculation of possible internet shutdown before and during the march, as reported by the Digital Rights Monitor on October 22, 2019.
Mobile Internet was deactivated to stop the live streaming of Maulana Fazul Rehman’s Azadi March while all TV channels were forced to observe blanket media black out. Remember Imran Khan claiming that media in Pakistan is fewer than UK? pic.twitter.com/C7dK2SmZnW
— Murtaza Solangi (@murtazasolangi) October 30, 2019
According to the email, the suspension was enforced on the orders from the Government of Pakistan in Mansehra and parts of Lahore from 8 PM on October 29, 2019 till 4 PM on October 30, 2019, and in parts of Multan ‘with immediate effect till further notice’. The details of the sender and the date they were sent on is unclear.
According to the reporters covering the JUI-F’s ‘Azadi March’, the network services were suspended in various areas of Mall Road Lahore, the Ferozepur Road, Jail Road, and specifically in and around the main venue of ‘Azadi March’ in Lahore, the Azadi Chowk.
Parts of Islamabad, specifically G8, G9, and G10 also seem to be experiencing suspension of mobile Internet services.
It’s important to note that while telecoms were instructed to shut down mobile data in the routes of the march, there was no official notification issued by the government, an action that could potentially constitute a violation of Section 54(3) National Security, of Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act, 1996, that necessitates the President to declare emergency before federal government can order suspension of telecom services.
In February 2018, the Islamabad High Court declared the arbitrary network shutdowns by the Government of Pakistan illegal, a decision that was later challenged by the government, and is pending for hearing.
Despite the somewhat uncertain legality of arbitrary network shutdowns, they seem to have become a regular occurrence during sensitive events across Pakistan in the pretext of potential ‘law and order situations’.
Hija Kamran, digital rights programs manager at Media Matters for Democracy, says, “These network shutdowns have become a tool for authorities to control the opposing narrative and ensure absolute rule within the country by restricting access to communication media with the potential to reach a larger audience.” She adds, “It is a blatant disregard for people’s right to free mobility, and could cause serious issues with regards to public safety”.