Balochistan’s Great Internet Shutdown
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Holding his files and report, the journalist enters and leaves office after office with disappointment, finding no internet in that building either. He has already traveled some 50 kilometers from his home to Turbat city just to send an email. He wants to send news about the recent flood to journalists from other provinces of Pakistan, who have asked him for reports, photos, and information about the damage the flood had caused in Kech district of Balochistan province. But he has no access to internet even in the district headquarters, Turbat, as the recent flood has affected fiber optics and communication lines.
“No internet means no emails and no access to information,” the reporter says. “I could have sent this email if 3G/4G services were not shut down. But, alas, as usual no one knows what’s happening in Kech and Balochistan.”
Hundreds and thousands of people were affected by the flood, particularly in Kech district and generally Balochistan province of Pakistan in late February. Rain started in mid-February and did not stop until the end of the month. Heavy and nonstop rain caused the two main rivers, the Nihing and Kech, to swell and overrun their banks. The resulting flood left many people homeless; in some districts, a state of emergency was declared. Around 10 people lost their lives.
The journalist tries again to send a message – this time a picture of homeless people — to media outlets but he fails again. There is still no internet connection.
“I think we must inform journalists and national media what is happening here so news spreads across the country and the concerned authorities help our stranded people,” he says. “But I can’t do that because of the absent internet connection.
“If the security forces had not shut down mobile internet services, I could have informed more people about the plight of our people.”
In late February of 2017, before beginning to collect population census data, 3G/4G mobile internet services were suspended in Kech district. The sole reason given was “security reasons.” Over two years later, 3G/4G services remain suspended, and now the flood had ensured that even wired internet connections are no longer functioning.
Kech is the second most populous district of Balochistan with 900,000 people. Some say it is the intellectual hub of Balochistan. The insurgency-driven district has produced politicians, academicians, bureaucrats, poets, and writers. Caught between the security forces and insurgents, people struggle for a better and peaceful life.
The National Security Case
During summer vacation in 2018, a large group of students and a few lecturers from Balochistan took a trip to Punjab province and Islamabad, where they got the opportunity to meet the director general (DG) of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistani armed forces. A curious student from Kech posed a question about the suspension of mobile internet services and told the DG that it was affecting their studies.
The DG replied that anti-state elements use these services and disturb law and order in the region.
It is a common question and lament in the district: how could mobile internet services be affecting the peace when every few kilometers there is a well-guarded security checkpoint where the soldiers stand alert? This can be seen across
A local took the lead and challenged the shutdown of 3G/4G services in Turbat High Court. In his constitutional petition, he nominated the Balochistan government, Ministry of the Interior, and other concerned ministries. With the case set for its first hearing, lawyer Shakeel Zamurani presented himself on behalf of the plaintiff.
“I just argued that the shutdown of these services was affecting the masses and institutions economically, educationally, emotionally, etc.,” Zamurani tells The Diplomat. “These services are not just wishes but have become a need for the public.”
But Zamurani could not see the case to its end. He had to withdraw the case from court after some people in plain clothes visited him in his chamber and told him he was challenging national security by questioning the mobile internet shutdown.
“They — people from security agencies — told me that they have restored peace in some villages of Kech by closing these services,” Zamurani explains. “Challenging this was like I was questioning the national security. So, I had to withdraw the case without any questions.”
People from various paths of life, such as journalists, lawyers, businessmen, lecturers, and bureaucrats, are reluctant to comment on this pressing issue using their names as this matter comes under the sensitive topic of national security.
“Activists even can’t protest against this issue,” a local activist says. “Even if we do the local newspapers will not publish any reports on this matter because they don’t like it to be highlighted.”
Mobile Internet, Politics, and Insurgency
In the upper house of Pakistan’s legislature, Akram Dashti, a senator from Kech district, stands tall and asks: “Are we, referring to the people of Balochistan, not equal citizens of this country? If we are equal citizens, then we should be treated equally and get [the same] opportunities and services as people from other province are getting.”
He added that he had already once discussed the issue of the suspension of mobile internet services in his district. But he planned to question this shutdown again.
“If we talk about a ‘global village,’ then we should have the right to get connected with the world and know what’s happening everywhere. And there is business and education, everything is connected in this modern world,” Dashti said in a speech replying to the chairman senate of Pakistan. The senate, he argued, “should pay attention to our grievances and resolve them. These discussions should be heard and addressed.”
Balochistan has been crippled with an insurgent movement since 2003, the fifth round of insurgency in the history of the province. The movement has permeated across the province. There have been highs and lows in the intensity, but the violence has always been there. The Baloch insurgents have targeted security and paramilitary forces.
Insurgents and terrorists “use common applications to evade security forces and coordinate their terrorist activities,” a high security official from Balochitan told The Diplomat. “I have seen it personally. The Baloch Liberation Front, an insurgent group, use these services. Our top priority is the security of Balochistan. And there will be no compromise over peace and prosperity of Balochistan.”
The suspension of mobile internet services is not limited to Balochistan province. The services are also suspended in what was formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA, now part of Khyber Pakhthunkwa (KP) province
In early June 2016, at Torkham, the border forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan clashed over the construction of a gate by the Pakistani authorities on the border. This clash led to the suspension of 3G/4G services in bordering towns and tribal areas.
“Since then the former tribal areas have no internet services,” says Shahid Kazmi, a local from KP province. “The government had announced they would restore it, but they actually never did.”
Pakistan conducted general elections in July 2018. Social media is a strong tool for reaching the public and convincing voters, many candidates from the tribal areas and Balochistan could not reach their voters due to the lack of mobile internet services.
“Many people and groups use these services but they specifically do it through a Virtual Private Network (VPN),” says a telecom engineer who requested anonymity. “They do that to dodge anyone who might try to trace them. Due to the unavailability of technical support in Pakistan, therefore, security agencies just shut down mobile internet services. Because of this, the masses also suffer.”
Access to Information, Knowledge and Opportunities
Ali Jan Buledi, a student of law in Islamabad, is aiming to be in the United States by this September to study one semester there. Buledi has been selected for a UGRAD scholarship. But he seems hesitant to visit his home in Turbat, Kech.
“It’s not like I do not want to visit my family before leaving for the U.S.,” Buledi tells The Diplomat. “But I am afraid that I might miss an important email if I visit home. There is no mobile internet service and PTCL connections are confined to a few places.”
Another source of accessing internet facility is Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), but it is limited to very few areas in the district. Even the majority of the houses in Turbat city don’t have this service because it provides limited connections.
“During vacations, I always cut my visit to home short and come back to Islamabad or go to Karachi,” Buledi chuckles, “because I have to. Staying in Kech means you are disconnected from the world and opportunities. I would not have had this opportunity if I had not had these services.”
Lecturers, students, businessmen, and people from various walks of life all criticize shutdown as well as the responsible authorities. Shopkeepers as well as small and large companies are bearing the brunt of the shutdown. Zong telecommunications is one of the many companies that is bearing some loss.
“We lose some 7 million rupees [roughly $50,000] in a month because our sales have decreased,” says Tariq Ali, the business development officer for Zong in Kech district. “Now we provide many services only to those who have PTCL connections and internet facility.”
Zong used to have agents across the district but now the company has just one. They had to suspend their Easypaisa mobile banking services and other money services to many places. The company also has lost many opportunities in various towns of the district because of losing biometric systems, which were dependent on mobile internet services in many towns. Many companies have the same kind of stories as Zong does.
In far flung areas of Balochistan, people read newspapers through mobile internet services. Dawn newspaper’s physical distribution is suspended in most parts of the province and has been since Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida interviewed the former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in an interview titled, “For Nawaz it’s not over till it’s over.” With no 3G/4G services, now the majority of people in Kech can’t access Dawn online either.
Amid all those impacted, students and lecturers may be the most affected group of people. Ironically, there is a newly established university and medical college.
Student-cum-writer Munaj Gul knows that whether writing an assignment or researching a story, internet connection is very crucial. “Research is very important for writing an article or any story,” say Gul, “but this is out of my approach as I don’t have the means to access information.”
“Definitely, this is very frustrating as I can’t access to many research journals, websites, and online books for preparing my lectures,” a lecturer at the University of Turbat, tells The Diplomat, requesting anonymity. “For delivering an effective and informative lecture I need to consult various sources, which I can’t [access] right now. And I even have to think about mobile internet services before giving any assignment to my students.”
Fears and frustration walk hand in hand in Kech. People can’t press the authorities over many issues; one of them is the shutdown of mobile internet services.
“I doubt it if the people in power corridor want us to study and achieve something,” adds the lecturer.
Shah Meer Baloch is a journalist based in Pakistan. He has had his work published in New York Times, Deutsche Welle, The National, The Diplomat, Daily Dawn, Firstpost, Herald magazine, and Balochistan Times.