X, formerly Twitter still remains partially accessible, after fourth day in Pakistan

Popular social media platform X, formerly Twitter, is still inaccessible to thousands of users across Pakistan, with the government still yet to reveal the reason behind the unannounced shutdown since Saturday.

While boasting of being among the top internet user population globally, Pakistan struggles with internet availability, ranking low compared to its peers, while reportedly authorities intermittently disrupt access to social media platforms.

Ahead of the February 8 general elections, users were unable to access several social media sites, for which authorities concerned blamed an error. However, on the polling day, the internet was shut down to avoid terrorism, according to the caretaker government. Following the sought-after polls, there were repeated disruptions in accessing X.

Internet shutdowns directly contradict constitutionally guaranteed rights like freedom of information (Article 19-A), freedom of speech (Article 19), and freedom of association (Article 17). In its February 2018 ruling, the Islamabad High Court declared internet shutdowns against fundamental rights and constitution.

When reporters reached out to caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi, he responded on WhatsApp: “Please contact Minister Information Technology and Chairman PTA.” We also received no response from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

Digital rights activist and journalist Farieha Aziz stated that the ban on X persists without any official acknowledgement by the PTA or the caretaker government.

Instead, she said, there is deflection by all quarters, while the “prime minister and the IT minister are using VPNs to post on X”.

She said that in line with PECA laws, blocking powers can only be exercised by the PTA, no one else, while the federal government through any ministry, can certainly not issue any instructions in this regard and legally such instructions are certainly not binding upon PTA, “this has been held by the IHC. So PTA needs to own up.”

Secondly, she said, the restriction is unreasonable and illegal. “Depriving citizens of a platform in this manner is not only unconstitutional but also shows that those making decisions wish to prevent discourse on election irregularities and expression of dismay and outrage by citizens across the country.”

“Why this is happening is clear. The snatching away of platforms where citizens' voices are heard, [this] must end,” she said.

Usama Khilji, director at Bolo Bhi, slammed the utter lack of transparency from the government.

“There's no notice, no announcement, no certainty around when the block will be lifted, which is creating a lot of uncertainty and an environment of disinformation, because people cannot access information with integrity, can't access instant information, which is the defining nature of Twitter,” he said.

It also signals the bad intention of the state and the government, he said, because not only did they shut off the internet on election day, they also turned off X now as allegations of “rigging and evidence of rigging are surfacing on Twitter and other social media platforms”.

Digital rights activist Haroon Baloch said that X is the most effective platform when it comes to expressing free speech, peaceful assemblies, and online campaigning on all sorts of issues.

“Blocking X and VPNs in Pakistan for citizens is just one example, yet sufficient for the country to earn a bad name,” he noted.

Baloch added that given the fact that X users in Pakistan are not ordinary public and are a few hundred thousand, its share in Pakistani business and e-commerce is very little.

"I hope it's not a new normal in Pakistan because people like me depend heavily on Twitter for getting news and to stay connected with the world. We've been using it with VPN but since most VPNs are paid, it's not easy for everyone to have unlimited access to Twitter," said Lahore-based researcher Mohammad Saad.

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