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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Internet Disrupted in Pakistan as Khan’s Party Launches Virtual Election Campaign

NetBlocks, an independent global internet monitor promoting digital rights, cybersecurity, and governance, and PTI officials confirmed the disruption in the run-up to and during the online campaign activity.

Authorities in Pakistan disrupted internet connectivity and blocked access to social media platforms nationwide late Sunday as the party of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan virtually launched its manifesto and fundraising campaign ahead of elections next month.

The national and global telethon was organized to bypass a local media ban and a government crackdown on physical gatherings of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI. According to public polls, the party is rated as the largest national political force, with Khan being the most popular politician.

Read more: PTI leader Zartaj Gul apologizes for May 9 incidents amidst legal challenges

NetBlocks, an independent global internet monitor promoting digital rights, cybersecurity, and governance, and PTI officials confirmed the disruption in the run-up to and during the online campaign activity.

“Confirmed: Live metrics show a nation-scale disruption to social media platforms across #Pakistan, including X/Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; the incident comes as persecuted former PM Imran Khan’s party, PTI, launches its election fundraising telethon,” NetBlocks said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“The incident is consistent with previous social media filtering events which have all been imposed during opposition party rallies or speeches by opposition leader Imran Khan,” the U.K.-based watchdog noted.

Read more: Chief Justice Pakistan Challenges PTI Members Disappearances Petition

Election authorities have rejected Khan and most senior PTI leaders as candidates for the February 8 parliamentary vote. The opposition party has persistently accused the Pakistani military of blocking its participation in the vote.

The independent non-profit Human Rights Council of Pakistan condemned the suspension of internet services as a breach of international law and fundamental rights. It said on X that all political parties have the right to carry out their activities.

“In the context of elections, all political parties should get the basic right of freedom of expression. It is the responsibility of the government of Pakistan to uphold the fundamental rights,” the council emphasized.

The PTI denounced the caretaker government of Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, which is constitutionally a neutral entity with a mandate to organize the elections freely and transparently.

“Once again, PTI has a virtual event, and once again, the internet is shut off,” Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari, a party spokesperson, said. “What has happened and is happening in Pakistan in the name of democracy is a slap in the face of transparency,” he added.

An opposition-led parliamentary no-confidence motion removed cricket star-turned-Prime Minister Khan from office in April 2022.

The deposed Pakistani leader rejected the move as illegal, alleging the military orchestrated it at the behest of the United States to topple his government to punish him for pushing an independent foreign policy and refusing to provide military bases to the U.S. military.

Washington and Islamabad deny the accusations.

Khan reiterated his allegations in an article he wrote from prison last Thursday in The Economist.

“I will just say, as we have said before, the former prime minister’s accusations are baseless, and I think I’ll leave it at that,” Mathew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, said last week when asked for his reaction to Khan’s claims.

The Pakistani government and the military justify their crackdown on the PTI, saying its workers vandalized army properties and installations during anti-government protests last May.

Khan rejects the allegations, saying the violence was planned by the military to pave the way for arresting, torturing, and forcing his party leaders to quit PTI or politics altogether.

The 71-year-old incarcerated politician is being tried on several allegations, ranging from corruption and murder to leaking state secrets while in office. Last August, he was convicted on controversial graft charges and sentenced to three years.

A higher court suspended the sentence, but he remains in prison. Khan rejects any wrongdoing and says the military is behind nearly 200 legal challenges against him to block him from returning to power, charges officials deny.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, has backed Khan’s assertions, noting, “There is little evidence to show that the upcoming elections will be free, fair or credible.” It denounced the crackdown on the PTI as a “systemic dismemberment” of the party.

Last month, Pakistan also temporarily slowed down internet services and blocked access to social media platforms to disrupt a rare massive PTI virtual election rally, drawing widespread denunciation.

The military has staged three coups against elected governments and ruled Pakistan for more than three decades since it gained independence. Generals influence decision-making when the military is not in power, say politicians, including former prime ministers.