CGCS sat down with Bytes for All Pakistan (B4A) to discuss Pakistan’s recent implementation of ‘kill switch’ strategy, which blocked cellular access in dozens of cities in November and December. B4A is a human rights organization with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
CGCS: What happened to the cellular networks in Pakistan during Ashura and on the eve of Chehlum of Hazrat Imam Hussain?
B4A: On Ashura days (the 9th and 10th of Moharram in the Islamic calendar), cellular networks were blocked in more than 80 Pakistani cities as a security measure. This was done ostensibly in order to ensure that the country remained peaceful and that no major terror incidents took place. A mere month later on December 24, 2013, the eve of Chehlum of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the government ordered the suspension of cellular services in more than 27 Pakistani cities. This ‘kill switch’ strategy, a deliberate disconnection of communications infrastructure initiated by the public sector, is now regularly used by Pakistan and typically justified by references to concerns about public safety.
CGCS: How is the ‘kill switch’ implemented in Pakistan?
B4A: When the ‘kill switch’ is implemented, the Ministry of Interior issues a directive to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the regulatory authority for telecommunications. The PTA, in turn, orders all telecommunications companies in the country to block mobile phones for a designated duration of time in specific geographic locations. This counter-terror strategy simply disables mobile phone access rather than apprehending well-known elements, and people, active in terrorist activities.
CGCS: When implemented on Ashura and Chehlum of Hazrat Imam Hussain, did the ‘kill switch’ strategy succeed in curbing terrorism and violence?
B4A: The closure of mobile services did not mitigate the threats. Sectarian clashes erupted during the Ashura procession in Rawalpindi, killing eight people and injuring more than eighty. Large numbers of shops were ransacked, a curfew was imposed, and the army was called in to bring order to areas of violence. During Chehlum of Hazrat Imam Hussain five bomb blasts occurrred across the country killing seven and injuring several. It is evident to Bytes for All that the government’s ‘kill switch’ counter terror tactics are failing and that the government must reexamine ineffective government policies and security lapses.
CGCS: Are there other censorship mechanisms the Pakistani government implements?
B4A: The government of Pakistan has a long history of censoring means of communication in the name of national security and counter-terrorism. Initially censorship was limited to newspapers, television and radio. Now the Internet and mobile phones are subject to restrictions too as seen through ‘kill switch’ methods that restrict or shutdown services. In October 2013, for example, the Sindh government announced its intention to block VoIP services such as Skype, Viber, Tango and WhatsApp for three months for ‘security’ reasons. Only after a massive backlash from civil society was the decision rescinded.
CGCS: What are the consequences or impacts of the ‘kill switch,’ and what does B4A believe can be done regarding the ‘kill switch’ and censorship.
B4A: The ‘kill switch’ has various consequences. For example, blocking cellular services, the only means of communication for the vast majority of the population, endangers lives and impacts livelihoods rather than promotes public safety. Access to communication is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan, and it is the State’s responsibility to uphold and protect citizens’ rights. Imposing cellular bans and curbing people’s access to communication in the name of counter-terrorism is damaging to fundamental citizens’ rights. There is also a heavy toll on economic activity in Pakistan. In 2013 alone, the ‘kill switch’ strategy cost cellular mobile operators around Rs. 6 billion in revenue losses. In so far as what should be done, it is important that authorities understand sooner rather than later that censorship is not a solution but rather a problem in itself. Concrete strategies and capacity building to counter terrorism are urgently needed. While Bytes for All is fighting these types of citizens’ rights violations in the country’s higher courts, government policy changes and citizen pressure are needed.
Featured Photo Credit: Bytes for All