Parties criticise govt for Internet suspension

ISLAMABAD  -  The caretaker govern­ment’s decision to sus­pend cellular phone ser­vices across the country before voters went to the polls for the coun­try’s general elections added to the controver­sy surrounding allega­tions of massive rigging.

Minutes before the start of polling at 8am on Thursday, the Minis­try of Interior in a state­ment said that mobile phone services across the country have been restricted temporarily to avert possible threats and to ensure law and order situation during the polling process.

The ministry’s spokes­person said that precious lives were lost in recent incidents of terrorism in the country in the lead up to the general elections.

Three hours after the polling ended at 5pm, the phone services began to resume partially in dif­ferent parts of the country.

A day earlier, the twin bomb blasts outside the election offices in Balochistan had killed at least 28 people and over 50 injured, prompting fears that terrorists could target the polling stations.

Due to the suspension of inter­net and other cellular phone ser­vices, voters across the coun­try faced difficulties to trace out their polling stations. The vot­ers couldn’t avail an SMS (short message service) service of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to know about the details of their polling stations.

Only a day before the general elections; the Pakistan Telecom­munication Authority (PTA), the regulator of telecommunication services in the country, had as­sured that internet services in the country would work on the poll­ing day without interruption.

The decision to suspend phone services not only invited criticism from rights groups but also from major political parties including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). All three par­ties separately approached the ECP against the disruption of ser­vices amid the electoral process.

The Amnesty International in a statement called the suspension of telecommunications and mo­bile internet services on the elec­tion day “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.

“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,” Am­nesty International’s South Asia office said in a statement.

“Unwarranted restrictions on dissemination of information, de­spite reassurances to the contrary from the Pakistan Telecommu­nications Authority and Election Commission of Pakistan, are in breach of people’s human rights at this critical time in Pakistan.”

A spokesperson of PTI in his strongly-worded statement blamed the ECP for “its inability and failure to ensure transparen­cy and credibility of the elections.”

The PTI spokesperson contin­ued that suspension of mobile phone services on the elections day was part of “the systematic conspiracy to deprive people” of their constitutional right to vote by reducing voter turnout.

He alleged that another purpose of shutting down the services was aimed at keeping evidence of rig­ging at the polling stations veiled and under carpet. Vice-President of the PPP Senator Sherry Rehman said that such moves go against democratic principles and cast a shadow on the electoral process.

“The suspension of internet and mobile networks during elections is a legitimate cause for concern, as these actions can erode the es­sence of democracy and create a negative impact on the overall electoral proceedings,” she said. She said that effective communi­cation was indispensable on elec­tion day, with parties and candi­dates relying on constant contact with their polling agents. The shutdown raises critical ques­tions about how polling agents can effectively convey their com­plaints and concerns in the ab­sence of vital communication channels, she added. Chief Elec­tion Commissioner Sikandar Sul­tan Raja in a statement said inter­net disruption would not impact the compilation of election re­sults. He added that the electoral watchdog’s operations were not reliant on the internet and it had an exclusive and independent net­working system.

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