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Pakistan’s X Restrictions Near 1-Month Mark, Despite Court Ruling

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Pakistan’s X Restrictions Near 1-Month Mark, Despite Court Ruling

The social media platform has been blocked in Pakistan for nearly a month, following the controversial general election.

Pakistan’s X Restrictions Near 1-Month Mark, Despite Court Ruling
Credit: Depositphotos

Pakistanis’ access to X (formerly known as Twitter) continues to be restricted despite a Sindh High Court order to restore the microblogging site’s services. The disruption coincided with protests following the February 8 general election and allegations of vote rigging. 

Authorities have not publicly stated a reason for the ongoing restrictions. Due to the lack of enforcement of court orders, the Islamabad High Court has also issued notices to the relevant authorities regarding the suspension of X in Pakistan.

On polling day, mobile internet services were completely shut down, and the announcement of results was unusually delayed, sparking allegations of rigging and many questions about the integrity of the election process. A senior election official also admitted to vote manipulation, further fanning the opposition party’s claims of extensive counting and results-tampering during the nationwide polls. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) plans to continue with street protests and legal action to reclaim what they believe is “a stolen mandate.” 

Given the increasing unrest due to allegations of election fraud, authorities blocked access to X on February 17.

The Sindh High Court ordered the country’s relevant regulatory authority, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), to restore access to the social media platform and advised against obstructing such services in the future. Yet, the court decision remains unenforced, and the social media platform is still suspended in Pakistan. Indeed, in court a PTA representative simply denied that there is any block on X in Pakistan. 

A case of contempt is thus being heard due to the PTA’s failure to implement the directives issued by the Sindh High Court. 

Additionally, on March 5, the Islamabad High Court served notices to both the PTA and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting regarding the suspension of X in the country. There needs to be more transparency from the government regarding the reasons for continuing to impose restrictions on the social media platform. The lack of clarity makes it difficult to discern the true motivation and creates an environment of speculation.

According to reports from NetBlocks, an internet monitoring service, X remains “fully or intermittently restricted for most users…amidst a surge in internet censorship during elections marred by irregularities.” NetBlocks was still recording widespread difficulties accessing X from Pakistan as of March 9

According to virtual private network (VPN) service providers, many Pakistanis have resorted to VPNs to bypass the restrictions. These networks encrypt data and conceal a user’s location. Yet VPN services are not widely accessible in the country.

There is ongoing international criticism of the restrictions, with human rights groups and various countries calling for complete restoration of access. The blocking of X is not only a violation of the fundamental right to access information and freedom of expression but can also have detrimental consequences for the economy. 

The U.S. State Department has censured the internet shutdowns and compelled the federal government to lift restrictions and uphold freedom of expression. It should also be noted that several countries, including the United States, Britain, and the European Union, have expressed concern about the electoral process in Pakistan and have emphasized the need to investigate the reported irregularities. 

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) maintains that cutting off access to the internet and social media websites can negatively impact virtual businesses and digital commerce, leading to an even more unstable and fragile economy. The recent extension of the ban has raised concerns among online companies regarding the potential loss of customers. Businesses relying on X for strategic marketing have suffered. This new development has also affected journalists and researchers who are facing difficulties accessing information.

Pakistan has faced other such bans in the past. Only last year, broadband services were interrupted more than three times in Pakistan. However, interestingly, in the current scenario, the concerned authorities have not bothered to offer a rationale for denying access to the platform, despite usually providing an alternate reason for such actions. As an editorial from Dawn put it, “This ‘strategic ambiguity’ from the authorities has added to the confusion surrounding the status of the service in Pakistan.”

When access to social media is interrupted, it can have numerous inadvertent consequences, one of which is the spread of disinformation. Balancing free speech with addressing misinformation is required. In today’s digital age, when the masses are unable to access these platforms, they may turn to other unreliable sources for information, leading to the propagation of false or misleading information. This can have serious consequences, particularly in an evolving post-election situation where accurate information is critical. 

Hence, the relevant authorities must restore full access to the platform. The court orders to that effect have long been made.