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X Remains Restricted in Pakistan a Week After Suspension

FILE - A man scans social media at an internet club in Islamabad, Pakistan. Access to the X platform remained restricted Feb. 23, 2024, a week after services were suspended following an official’s declaration of involvement in election rigging.
FILE - A man scans social media at an internet club in Islamabad, Pakistan. Access to the X platform remained restricted Feb. 23, 2024, a week after services were suspended following an official’s declaration of involvement in election rigging.

Access to social media platform X, formerly Twitter, remained restricted in Pakistan late Friday, a week after services were suspended following a high-level official’s declaration that he was involved in election rigging.

Netblocks, a cybersecurity watchdog, recorded the seventh day of service suspension. The platform was accessible intermittently during the week.

Since the beginning of the year, Pakistan’s nearly 128 million internet users have experienced service interruptions five times, according to Lithuania-based internet shutdown tracker Surfshark. The tracker recorded four restrictions last year and three in 2022.

“Pakistan’s internet censorship efforts have been alarmingly increasing, and 2024 may be a record year for the country regarding internet restrictions,” the statement said, quoting Surfshark spokeswoman Lina Survila.

Two of 2024’s five restrictions, targeting several major social media platforms like YouTube, X, Facebook and Instagram, came in January. The disruptions occurred as the PTI party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, facing a state-backed crackdown, started online election events.

The other three restrictions were put in place as Pakistan held elections on February 8.

Pakistan shut down mobile internet services across the country on Election Day and for several hours beyond.

Authorities defended the highly controversial action as necessary to ensure election security.

Suspension of X

Facing the longest-running suspension of a social media platform in Pakistan this year, X became inaccessible across much of the country on February 17.

This came soon after Liaqat Ali Chatha, the commissioner of the Rawalpindi region, announced he had overseen large-scale election rigging. Pakistan’s elections commission quickly rejected his assertion and the official later walked back his confession in court.

Pakistan’s vote was marred by allegations of massive fraud. PTI, which won a plurality of parliament seats but fell well short of a majority, contends that its election mandate was stolen. Most other parties have also protested the results.

The caretaker government has rejected calls by the United States, United Kingdom and United Nations to probe reported election irregularities.

A pattern of restrictions

Freedom House, a global civil liberties observer, ranks Pakistan as “not free” in terms of internet freedom.

While X has only a few million users in Pakistan, the base is seen as politically active.

The power to censor or control free expression always lay with governments until about 10 years ago, said Saroop Ejaz, senior counsel in the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. “I think we are looking at an amplified version of that [public debate]. Twitter [now X] is an amplified version of that … it seems those in power are troubled by this.”

Many are skirting the restriction through virtual private networks that allow users to hide their identities and locations online.

“In this day and age, the concept of blocking something is almost gone, because there are VPNs and other platforms that allow users to access content. Restriction just becomes a source of embarrassment. ... It creates a very negative image of Pakistan around the world,” said Asad Baig, founder of Islamabad-based watchdog Media Matters for Democracy.

Expressing concern about restrictions on freedom of expression, U.S. State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller called on Pakistan on Wednesday to restore access to any restricted social media.

The provincial court in Pakistan's Sindh province also ordered the government to restore access to X, during a hearing on the Election Day internet outage.

Surfshark, which also is a VPN provider, said that since February 18, new users of its circumvention services in Pakistan have increased up to four times compared with last month.

Investigating online speech

So far this year, Pakistani authorities have twice set up investigation teams to probe online speech.

A joint investigation team, or JIT, that was formed this week, comprising intelligence officials among others, will probe the ”malicious social media campaign attempting to malign the image of civil servants/government officials in connection with Elections 2024,” according to a government notice.

Speaking at a press briefing Thursday, Information Minister Murtaza Solangi said freedom of expression has limits.

The constitution “does not allow making insulting remarks against judiciary, military and brother countries,” he said, adding that those inciting illegal activities will be dealt with according to the country’s law.

Authorities arrested prominent Pakistani commentator Imran Riaz Khan late Thursday. Police sources told VOA's Urdu Service that Khan was arrested for spreading religious hate. He was later charged with corruption.

In the run-up to the elections, authorities formed a JIT in January to probe a “malicious campaign” against top judiciary on social media.

The Federal Investigation Agency sent notices to more than 100 journalists, commentators, politicians and activists accused of “spreading defamatory and false information against state institutions” and called them in for questioning.

The Supreme Court later stopped authorities from taking any action.

Naveed Nasim and Zia Ur Rehman from VOA's Urdu Service contributed to this report.