The Pakistan government’s decision to shut down internet and cellular phone services across the country on February 8 has been criticized by political parties as well as businesses and global human rights agencies, with the Amnesty International describing it as a “reckless attack on people’s rights”.
“It is reckless to impede access to information as people head out to polling stations on the heels of devastating bomb blasts and what has been an intense crackdown on the opposition in the lead up to the elections in the country,” said Livia Saccardi, Interim Deputy Director for South Asia at Amnesty International.
The internet shutdown made life difficult for camp officers of different political parties, especially the PTI whose candidates contested in the election as independents after being deprived of the party symbol weeks before the polls.
No phone coverage disrupts access to 8300 SMS service
The Election Commission’s 8300 SMS service, essential for voter information nationwide, suffered disruptions, due to the unavailability of mobile network.
The suspension left millions of citizens unable to access their voting details. Election Commission officials and citizens both voiced apprehension over the suspension, highlighting the widespread impact on voter accessibility.
Political parties condemn the move
Political parties PTI, PPP, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also criticized the government for shutting down mobile phone services across the country. They argued that this action went against the orders of the Sindh High Court, which had instructed the interim government not to implement such measures on election day.
NetBlocks call it “inherently undemocratic” practice
NetBlocks, an international internet watchdog, described the suspension of internet and mobile phone services as “inherently undemocratic.”
“The ongoing election day internet blackout in Pakistan is amongst the largest we’ve observed in any country in terms of severity and extent,” NetBlocks director Alp Toker told media.
“The practice is inherently undemocratic and is known to limit the work of independent election observers and cause irregularities in the voting process.”
Impact on ride-hailing and food delivery businesses
The nationwide suspension of cellular mobile telephony and mobile data services on election day significantly affected various mobile data-based businesses. This disruption resulted in substantial financial losses for ride-hailing companies and online food delivery services, affecting both customers and thousands of drivers who rely on the platform for their livelihoods.
Prominent ride-hailing companies like Careem, Indrive, Bykea, and Yango were adversely affected, with many drivers offering their services via social media to ferry voters to polling stations.
To put things in context, there are over 13000 Foodpanda and Bykea riders, 30,000 Uber and Careem captains, and around 12,000 Foodpanda home chefs whose daily wages are dependent on broadband data.
Similarly, customers faced difficulties moving around, particularly in the federal capital. The situation was no different for online food delivery companies such as Food Panda, Cheetay, and others. Many customers encountered challenges in making payments through digital wallets such as JazzCash and Easypaisa, further exacerbating the situation.
Govt says shutdowns aimed at maintaining law and order
The Interior Ministry, however, claimed that the mobile phone service and internet shutdown were aimed at maintaining law and order situation on the election day.
“It has been decided to temporarily suspend mobile services across the country,” an interior ministry spokesman said in a statement.
The spokesman added that “precious lives have been lost” in recent militant attacks in the country and “security measures are essential to maintain law and order situation and to deal with potential threats”.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja said the decision on mobile networks was made by “law and order agencies” following Wednesday’s violence and the commission would not interfere.