This week, there have been two fronts in the conflict between Imran Khan’s followers and the strong Pakistani military: the streets and social media. And on one front, the former prime minister appears to be winning.
In an effort to dampen opposition, Pakistan’s authorities immediately imposed restrictions on the nation’s internet after Imran Khan was detained on Tuesday.
Nationwide demonstrations were quickly aroused by the party leader’s arrest.
After learning that Khan had been arrested, Nighat Dad in Lahore hurried home. As they were leaving the lawyer’s office in the city, the crew was already coming across aggressive demonstrators.
She told the BBC that “a mob tried to attack their cars and stop them from leaving.”
She was monitoring the internet debate as one of Pakistan’s top advocates for digital rights.
Pictures of teargas-filled protests featuring stone-throwing demonstrators circulated on social media and in WhatsApp groups. Khan being surrounded by paramilitary soldiers in the arrest video that went viral. On its Twitter feed, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), posted updates in a hurry.
The administration turned a switch to stop the situation from further worsening. Social media platforms across the nation experienced outages; users had trouble loading Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
In other locations, mobile networks were also banned, resulting in a complete loss of connectivity. Internet speeds were throttled elsewhere.
For the majority of Pakistanis, the blackout wasn’t a surprise when it occurred. Those who could activated their VPNs, and subsequently trackers informed the BBC that demand for the services that change a user’s internet location increased by 1,300%. Those with access to mobile devices kept using WhatsApp.
Online “real news”
In recent years, notably in South Asia, shutting down the internet has become a standard manoeuvre in the authoritarian playbook. According to analysts, authorities take the nation offline in order to stifle any dissent or protest and to control the flow of information.
“Governments have a hammer, and it’s easy to treat the internet like a nail,” asserts Kathik Nachiappan, a South Asia specialist based in Singapore.
The action has a special impact in Pakistan since it closes down what is perceived as the only source of “real news” there; the country’s mainstream media is largely believed to have been restrained for a decade by military authorities’ attacks on independent journalists and newspapers.
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According to Uzair Younus, a Pakistani political specialist at The Atlantic Council, a US-based think tank, people now turn to the internet to learn “what is truly going on” since they no longer have faith in mainstream media to fully enlighten them.
People claim that viewing television is not worthwhile because the military controls what can and cannot be stated, says Mr. Younus.
Therefore, when there is breaking news like Khan’s arrest, people swarm to credible journalists’ websites, YouTube channels, and social media platforms.
One of the biggest broadcasters in the nation, Geo News, had me riveted to my computer screen at work, said Mr. Younus. Information about protests on WhatsApp and on Twitter, like who had been shot and where tear gas was being distributed. None of that was covered by Geo.
Of course, there are all the typical problems associated with depending on social media for news, including inaccuracy, deception, and the highly difficult political environment in Pakistan.
According to Ms. Dad, the director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Lahore, restricting web access is a flagrant infringement of fundamental rights regardless of the type of material that people are consuming.
People have no other option than to acquire information if the Internet is taken off, she claims.
She contends that the government’s broad prohibition breaches the rights to free expression, information access, and assembly, all of which are guaranteed by Pakistan’s constitution. Be a human right.
most extreme censoring to date
But since Mr. Khan was ousted from office by the assembly in April of last year, internet restriction days have become more frequent for Pakistanis.
Since then, the flamboyant politician has been making a return, travelling the nation in a convoy while vehemently protesting his expulsion and the accusations levelled against him. Thousands have been inspired by him to attend his rallies.
Before Khan’s arrest, at least three significant internet outages were connected to his rallies, according to UK-based internet watchdog Netblocks, but this week’s was the worst.
According to Netblocks researcher Alp Toker, “this is possibly the most sever censorship that we’ve tracked for Pakistan in recent times.”
The scope of it and the fact that it encompasses several disruptive elements, including social media platforms and mobile networks, “show a concerted effort to control the narrative.”
The impacted cell networks, according to Netblocks, were down in parts of Punjab, a Khan stronghold and Pakistan’s most populous province. Later, the telecommunications regulator acknowledged that it had distributed the kill order under the interior ministry’s instruction.
Internet censorship is a critical decision that Pakistan’s present leaders do not take lightly. It denies the general population access to emergency, financial, and healthcare services.
It has taken a significant toll on an already fragile economy, impacting companies all around the nation. From delivery workers to members of the tech industry, tens of millions of Pakistanis rely on the Internet for a living.
A statement protesting the internet blackout was signed by hundreds of business and human rights leaders in Pakistan on Wednesday. They expressed concern that the move will harm the nation’s thriving tech industry, which is one of the few sources of much-needed foreign investment.
Even more upsetting for the soldiers now is the fact that they previously joined Khan’s social media team.
The generals had contracted with the PTI as a team to expand their not insignificant social presence when Khan ascended to power in 2018 with the backing of the military. However, the PTI was able to take away the majority of their internet following after Khan and the army split.
According to Mr. Younus, the military is now battling to dominate the narrative online and has found itself on the defensive. It successfully repelled PTI tactics that involved organising followers via hashtags and website attacks. This week, the military’s YouTube channel came under attack, and at first, angry comments from Khan’s fans were banned. In
“Turning it all off was the obvious answer things because they don’t have the capability the PTI does on social media,” claims Mr. Younus.
However, social media filtering is simply one type of interruption. WhatsApp, the messaging platform regarded as the backbone of the nation’s information flow, is far more important to organising efforts for demonstrators.
On the app, both political parties are promoting their messages, but once again, the PTI has a little advantage.
“They’ve done a fantastic job” of establishing these networks and groups, according to Mr. Younus, through which they disseminate knowledge or their own viewpoint.
On Friday, most people still had limited access to the internet as the situation remained tight around the nation.
The army had been stationed in the capital, and the judicial snafus surrounding Khan’s case dared to spark new demonstrations.
Facebook and YouTube have been partially reopened to certain users, but the country-wide restrictions remained inconsistent and arbitrary.
However, political enthusiasm is still at an all-time high, and internet debate is still going strong.
According to Ms. Dad, “people are charged and emotions are high, not just because of what happened to Imran Khan, but also because of the country’s economic collapse.”
It’s a combination of rage and frustration that has reached its peak. Everyone has a point to make.