Photo by usama tayyab on Unsplash
May 15, 2020, Lahore – When Arfan Ghani woke up around 9 am on May 15, 2020, he found that his cell phone refused to make a single phone call. He tried sending a text but that did not go through either, next he tried using the data on his cell phone to send a Facebook message to a friend and all he got was a “Message not sent”. This was unexpected and hard to understand. He called his telecom provider, Ufone’s helpline from the only operational telecom service, Zong, in the house and was told that the signals had been blocked on government orders due to Youm-e-Ali – a religious event observed through processions across Pakistan.
Since the religious procession has been banned by the Punjab government during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ufone customer service telling him that there were government orders to block voice and data coverage in all areas within a 3km radius of “main sites” came as a surprise and a major inconvenience. Ghani is above 60 years of age, and has ended all physical contact with relatives and friends given the government’s insistence that those in his age group are more vulnerable to the current coronavirus.
“I call my elderly relatives and other friends to check up on them in the morning, ensure they have everything they need and are doing well,” he said adding, “this has become a morning ritual of sorts and today when I couldn’t make these phone calls, I was not only annoyed but also worried about them.”
Multiple telecom companies have blocked coverage in areas around main Shia sites in the country from where the Youm-e-Ali procession usually starts. The procession took place in various cities across the country including Lahore, despite the Punjab government’s notification to block it. It has been informal state policy in the past to block coverage in sensitive areas around religious occasions like Muharram, which previously have witnessed attacks by terrorist organisations in the country.
The shutdown was unexpected because users were not informed in advance either by the telecom companies or by the government through a public notification. Sadaf Khan, co-founder and Director Programs of Media Matters for Democracy, a digital rights NGO, said that cellular and internet services are a lifeline for many people during the current pandemic.
“It is a way for people to remain connected with each other, but more than that it is access to information during the pandemic that makes having access to cell phones and the internet even more important. Even the government has developed internet based apps for people to check their symptoms and has used caller tunes as a way to promote awareness about COVID-19, so shutting down networks during this time can be very detrimental to the physical and mental well being of people,” says Khan.
She also points to the fact that many people have experienced breakdowns or the slowing down of their traditional broadband based WiFi connections, because their systems have been overwhelmed by the amount of traffic they are getting. “In this situation, mobile data becomes even more important. Apart from this, there are many households that cannot afford WiFi so they simply rely on cell phone data for access to the internet,” she said.
There is also inconsistency in telecom companies shutting down services. For instance, in Ghani’s locality in Lahore, while Ufone and Warid were disconnected, Zong was working. This makes it harder for users to understand why they are getting coverage and points to the need for more transparency on the part of the government when they issue such notifications.
Khan also said that there was very little evidence to suggest that network shutdowns actually help with security measurements, and even under normal circumstances create more inconvenience for people.
These shutdowns though have become a regular practice in Pakistan, with digital rights activists asking for more transparency around the process, with notifications being made public and users being informed in advance. The issue was also taken up by the Islamabad High Court, which in 2018 declared the network shutdowns illegal through its judgement. It also declared it a violation of the fundamental rights of people. The federal government, however, has appealed the decision with the Supreme Court and has gotten an interim stay order, which has allowed the practice to continue. The case with the Supreme Court is still pending.