Pakistan's Mobile Phone Curfew

Pakistan is the home to millions of mobile phone users and robust political movements. An effort to curtail people's freedom of expression and access to digital information may lead to serious confrontation between the government and the citizens.
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On August 14, the government of Pakistan deliberately suspended mobile phone service for millions of subscribers in the country's largest province of Balochistan. Ironically, it was Pakistan's Independence Day and the citizens were supposed to enjoy their freedom. The government restricted phone calls and text messages in an effort to freeze the communication system of the political opposition. The opponents of the government increasingly use modern technology to mobilize political gatherings and criticize the official policies. Frustrated with Islamabad over the lack of political freedom and internal sovereignty, Balochistan's indigenous people mark August 14 as a "black day."

The Balochs, unlike the rest of Pakistan, celebrate their independence day on August 11 instead of August 14.

According to the Express Tribune, a respected Pakistani English language newspaper, "August 11 marked the day the state of Kalat [now known as Balochistan] announced its independence from British India with its parliament stating that it would be acceding neither to Pakistan nor to India. This was accepted by the British rulers of the colony. Kalat makes up 23 percent of the population of the territory of Balochistan. The state joined the federation of Pakistan on March 27, 1948 as a result of what the Baloch say was severe military pressure. The Khan of Kalat had acknowledged this."

The newspaper further noted, "according to some reports, the flag of Pakistan was burnt at some places on this occasion and calls were made hailing an independent Balochistan."

Civil society groups that oppose official restrictions on the freedom of expression have vented absolute displeasure over Pakistani government's growing intolerance toward political dissent and mismanagement of public dissatisfaction with government policies.

"We express strong reservations against the Balochistan Government's blockade of cellphone services in the province, on Independence Day," said a statement issued by the widely revered Bolo Bhi, a not-for-profit organization that advocates government transparency and freedom of expression, "access to communication is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan and the State has the responsibility to protect and uphold citizens' rights across Pakistan."

Bolo Bhi, which in Urdu means to "speak up," says it opposes the official pretext that such freedoms are curtailed in order to maintain law and order.

"The State has the responsibility to maintain law and order but that shouldn't come at the cost of citizens' rights. To cut off communication services citing miscreants as an excuse not only violates the rights of citizens,' but is an unjust and discriminatory practice. On the day we celebrate our Independence, it is ironic that residents of Baluchistan face hardships due to a communication blackout."

Governments in Pakistan have had a long history of censoring newspapers and television channels but restricting access to cell phones is a new method to discourage and restrict communication between and assembly of political opponents. It was the second time in less than six months that the Pakistani authorities have imposed such blatant restrictions. While preventing people from using traditional means of communication compels political opponents to opt for alternative covert and violent approaches to continue their activism, such extra-constitutional measures also add to the miseries of neutral citizens who do not wish to take sides in a battle between the government and the opposition. However, there is a greater possibility that such unreasonable curbs will increase public sympathy against the government in the wake of the opposition parties' quest for more civil liberty.

On March 23, 2012, the Pakistani government also shut down mobile phone services in Balochistan for around 14 hours on the eve of another national holiday known as the Pakistan Day. The government said cell phone services were suspended in order to implement the obscure 'national security plan.'

As proponents of freedom of expression, we passionately opposed the government's action and viewed it as the harbinger of a negative trend which could be repeated, as it was on August 14, by the government.

"...Pakistan has been treating Balochistan as a colony since 1947 but day-by-day it is resorting to more oppressive tactics to terrorize the Baloch population. Such practices are unacceptable in the 21st century. 'National security' is too weak a pretext to justify this anti-citizen practice," I wrote in the Baloch Hal, Balochistan's first online English language newspaper which has been blocked inside Pakistan by the government since November 2010 due to its critical stance on government policies:

"We have not seen such widespread denial of access to public service in Islamabad under the excuse of national security even during worst terrorist attacks such as the bombing at the Marriott Hotel which killed at least 50 people. Such measures were not taken in Rawalpindi where former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 or in Karachi where former military dictator Pervez Musharraf escaped an assassination attempt. What, after all, is Islamabad's philosophy behind this overly-protective attitude?"

Pakistan is the home to millions of mobile phone users and robust political movements. An effort on the part of the government or the military to curtail people's freedom of expression and access to digital information may lead to serious confrontation between the government and the citizens. An unstable and deeply polarized country, Pakistan will immeasurably hurt its interests if it reacts frantically toward dissent and limit communication among citizens. Coercive attitude normally triggers more trouble than what the governments anticipate amid normal circumstances.

The views expressed in his article are personal and do not reflect the policy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) where the writer is currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.

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