Pakistani authorities temporarily suspended mobile services across the country Thursday to curb any “possible threats” of danger, the interior ministry said, as the nation’s 127 million voters headed to the polls for the general election.
At least 30 people were killed in bombings outside political offices in southwest Pakistan on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
The ministry said that the shutdown was prompted by “recent incidents of terrorism” but the move was criticized by opposition lawmakers, voters, and rights groups who accused the government of infringing on citizens’ basic rights.
“This practice is inherently undemocratic and is known to limit the work of independent election observers and cause irregularities in the voting process,” Alp Toker, the director of digital rights group NetBlocks, told AFP.
The tense election in the world’s fifth-most populous country has been marked by widespread political turmoil and doubts about the fairness of the election process, with former prime minister Imran Khan, along with many supporters of his opposition party, in jail. Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister has returned from self-exile and is widely seen as the front-runner in the election.
Network shutdown hampered Imran Khan’s social media campaign and voters’ mobility
Observers of the election had previously warned that service disruptions could get in the way of the popular and currently imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice (PTI) party “to get the vote out,” Nikkei reported, as the party heavily relies on social media to mobilize voters. It is also not the first time Khan’s party has experienced network outages during critical campaign moments.
The network shutdown may have also affected voters’ ability to find their polling stations — with election monitoring groups telling The Wall Street Journal that many residents found out that their registered voting locations had changed. The interim deputy director of South Asia at Amnesty International slammed officials for recklessly hampering “access to information” and breaching people’s fundamental rights “at this critical time in Pakistan.” Such “blanket shutdowns,” she said, impact “people’s mobility, livelihood and ability to navigate through a difficult time further undermining their trust in authorities.”
Pakistanis are voting at a time of record high discontentment, especially with the ‘all-powerful’ military
Internet outages, along with the jailing and silencing of opposition members in the lead-up to elections, are “not new,” the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman wrote in Foreign Affairs, accusing Pakistan’s “all-powerful military” of frequently using such tactics to “weaken the parties it doesn’t want in power.” What is different this year, however, is that the elections are taking place amid record levels of pessimism among the population, a Gallup survey found — with Pakistan’s economy in dire straits, an uptick in violence, and intensifying tensions along the country’s border with Iran and Afghanistan. Protesters angry at the ousting of former prime minister Imran Khan in a no-confidence vote in 2022, allegedly at the hands of the country’s armed forces, have directed attacks – many violent – at the military. “Rarely had political violence taken such direct aim at Pakistan’s military, which has long held a sacrosanct status,” Kugelman wrote.
Jailed ex-leader uses AI-generated deepfakes to mobilize ‘cultlike following’
With many of Imran Khan’s party members and supporters also in jail, the PTI has rolled out a “two-pronged campaign strategy of secretive campaigning often led by female teacher volunteers and generative AI technology,” Reuters reported, detailing the party’s attempt to create a deepfake of the former prime minister urging voters to turn up for the elections. “He now has a cultlike following,” The New York Times wrote. “Supporters see him – and by extension themselves — as wronged by the military leaders who they believe orchestrated his ouster.”