Amid widespread protests and political instability following the recent arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, authorities have imposed internet shutdowns and blocked social media platforms, while protestors have targeted journalists in violent attacks.
Khan was arrested on May 9 by paramilitary troops on corruption charges. Two days later, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled the arrest was unlawful and ordered that Khan be released, marking a setback for the country’s powerful military.
Khan has faced several charges since he was ousted after losing a confidence vote last year, so it was only a matter of time before he was arrested.
Nevertheless, the arrest of the popular former prime minister infuriated his supporters, prompting protests around the country, with demonstrators storming military buildings, ransacking the residence of a top army general in Lahore, and setting fire to state buildings.
Following Khan’s arrest, authorities imposed internet shutdown in several regions, including the capital Islamabad, and blocked platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. On Wednesday, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said the internet shutdown would remain in effect for an indefinite period.
Digital rights groups condemned the latest development in what has become a pattern of Pakistani authorities blocking internet access in response to political instability and protests.
“Especially amid protests and crises, people need to share and verify information, and exchange diverse views. The deliberate blackouts in Pakistan undermine human rights, stifle free speech, and will only worsen the impact of the crisis by keeping people in the dark,” said Eliška Pírková, who works at the digital rights group Access Now.
The shutdown is a violation of people’s right to access information and free expression, according to Amnesty International’s Rimmel Mohydin.
The ban on social media platforms “creates a permissive environment for other human rights violations under the darkness of the internet shutdown,” Mohydin said in a statement.
Many reporters and news outlets have been the targets of violence following Khan’s arrest, according to the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, or RSF.
On May 10, about 200 demonstrators stormed the building housing Radio Pakistan, the state-owned radio station in Peshawar, the capital of the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
They immediately ransacked the reception area and smashed furniture in several studios, the station’s managing director Ijaz Khan said in a statement.
The mob later set fire to the building, destroying computer equipment and the station’s historical recordings and three vehicles in the compound.
The day before, reporters trying to cover the protests in Peshawar were attacked by demonstrators.
“During the current turmoil in Pakistan, it is absolutely crucial that journalists should be able to work without constraint in order to provide their fellow citizens and the world with reliable, freely-reported and independent news coverage,” RSF’s Asia-Pacific head Daniel Bastard said in a statement.
RSF ranks Pakistan 150 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.