Digital Rights in Jeopardy in Balochistan

Adnan Aamir
On the morning of August 27, the people of Quetta woke up to find that there was no cellular service. They were taken by surprise and many missed work and appointments due to the suspension of cellular services. For the entire day, everything was at standstill in the city which underscores the importance of telecommunication services, which remained suspended, as it was the seventh day of Muharram. Cellular services had been suspended in the entire city on the pretext of security for Ashura processions. People were not informed of this suspension beforehand which further caused confusion.
This is just one example of the infringement of digital rights of the people of Balochistan. It is a practice that has been going on for the last many years without much scrutiny. This issue has largely remained ignored because of the overall infringement of fundamental human rights in Balochistan. Since there are graver problems faced by citizens of Balochistan, infringement of digital rights of the province is hardly discussed by the masses.
Between August 29 and 30, the same exercise was repeated to provide security to Ashura processions. This time, people knew in advance but it still caused inconvenience for the people. There are many problems with this approach of suspending cellular services to protect religious processions under threat of terrorism attacks.
First, there is no credible evidence to support the claim that suspension of cellular services results in prevention of terrorism attacks. It is true that in recent years there have not been any major sectarian attacks on Ashura processions but there are other reasons for this. Cadres and leaders of sectarian terror outfits were eliminated by security forces. So is hard to comprehend why the government continues to block cellular services without any proven benefit.

Mobile internet is blocked in seven districts and this meant that thousands of students could not attend online classes announced by HEC

Second, blocking of communication services contradicts the claim of the government that the security situation has improved in the province. Blocking mobile telecommunication services is tantamount to a digital curfew and the imposition of curfew to provide security proves that the situation is still not under control. Lastly, even if the blockage of cellular services is inevitable for security reasons, then the services should only be blocked near areas where the Ashura procession passes. It makes no sense to block mobile networks tens of kilometers away from the Ashura procession. In this context, the blockage of cellular services is a grave infringement of digital rights.
Moreover, on August 29, the Balochistan government came up with a ludicrous set of instructions for its employees. All employees of the provincial government were instructed to un-follow Facebook pages and quit WhatsApp groups. This is ironic given the fact that Chief Minister Jam Kamal claims that he is the admin of 70 WhatsApp groups himself. He proudly claims that he uses WhatsApp for running the affairs of the government in an effective manner. No government can dictate the personal behaviour of its employees on social media. This is also an infringement of the basic digital rights of the people. Thankfully, citizens of the province have challenged this unlawful order in the court of law.
Another example is the permanent suspension of mobile internet services in seven districts of the province on security grounds. In these districts, cellular service is available but mobile internet services remain disconnected. As a result, millions of citizens of these districts are not only disconnected from the world but also from the opportunity of acquiring knowledge and development.
Earlier this year, when the Higher Education Commission (HEC) instructed universities to conduct online classes, this became the subject of student protests across Balochistan. As mentioned earlier, mobile internet is blocked in seven districts and this meant that thousands of students could not attend the classes. Student groups protested for many days in multiple cities and organised demonstrations in Karachi and Quetta. However, none of this moved the HEC and they did not take any decision to help out the protesting students of the province. This is yet another example of how even the federal government also does not care about digital rights of the people of Balochistan.
Furthermore, the impact of digital suppression on Balochistan is huge. According to the Telecom Indicator figures shared by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 38.25 percent of the population uses mobile internet in Pakistan. Since Balochistan is under-developed, we can assume that mobile internet penetration can be 19.13 percent in Balochistan. This means that around 2.5 million people of Balochistan are victims of infringement of digital rights by both provincial and federal governments. They have lesser chances of competing with others for economic opportunities in this global world.
In this context, the need of the hour is that governments in Quetta and Islamabad take the issue of digital rights seriously. In this age of information, no community can afford to remain disconnected from the digital world. Governments must deal with this issue on an urgent basis and facilitate affordable, easy, interruption-free and unchecked digital access for the populace.
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