The Pakistani government has faced renewed criticism for reportedly abusing its power to close down mobile networks, amidst claims that the state has used the measures for political gain rather than security reasons. The administration ordered the suspension of mobile services in Islamabad and Rawalpindi yesterday, amidst concerns regarding the arrival of opposition figure Tahirul Qadri in Pakistan. Populist cleric Qadri has criticised the government as undemocratic and corrupt and flew to Pakistan from his home in Canada earlier this week to launch a series of protests against the Prime Minister. Anticipating the cleric’s arrival, the government implemented a raft of measures to prevent Qadri’s supporters from rallying in the capital, including blockading the airport, tightening security at check-points, closing down mobile networks and reportedly shutting down markets. Whilst the government has argued that these measures were intended to ensure the public’s security, it has nevertheless faced fierce criticism that it was simply abusing its powers to hinder its opponents by limiting the movements and communications of Qadri and his supporters.
As noted by TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, in late 2012 the government began mass mobile blackouts in areas expecting imminent terrorist attacks. Incurring substantial losses as a result of the temporary suspensions of service, the nation’s cellcos challenged the government’s right to close down networks based on ‘vague alert[s]’, the result of which was a court ruling stating that the state must have a cogent reasons and a specific timeframe in order to instruct network operators to shut down operations. Whilst the order had little impact on the interior ministry’s frequent issuance of blackout orders, the practice slowed significantly following changes of leadership at the interior ministry and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in early 2013. The last blackout order was in November 2013, during the festival of Ashura, traditionally a divisive religious celebration for Sunni and Shia sects of Islam which is often marked by acts of sectarian violence.
In related news, the PM has ordered the PTA to disable the roaming facility on Afghan SIMs in a bid to reduce the use of mobile phones in criminal activities. According to the PTA there were some 40,000 Afghan SIMs being used in Pakistan to circumvent the nation’s SIM registration procedures.