Washington calls on Islamabad to restore access to X, other social media platforms

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US call comes amid blockade of X in Pakistan; Global mobile operators body express concern over internet curbs

US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller during a press briefing on February 21, 2024. — Screengrab/State Department
  • X has been blocked in Pakistan since Saturday last week.
  • US conveys its position to Islamabad through official channels.
  • GSMA says Election Day internet restrictions violation of rights.

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD: The United States on Wednesday called on Islamabad to “respect freedom of expression and restore access to any social media” platforms including X — formerly known as Twitter.

“So we are concerned by any report of restrictions on the exercise of the freedom of expression and association in Pakistan, including the partial or complete government-imposed internet shutdowns, which includes, of course, on social media platforms. We continue to call on Pakistan to respect freedom of expression and restore access to any social media that has been restricted, including Twitter, I think now known as X,” said State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller in a press briefing to a question about disruptions on social media in Pakistan.

The spokesperson said that Washington has and will continue to “emphasise the importance of respecting these fundamental freedoms during our engagements with Pakistani officials”. He also shared that Washington had communicated its position to Islamabad through official channels.

Global mobile operators body concerned over internet curbs in Pakistan

GSMA, a global organisation unifying the mobile ecosystem, has expressed concern over connectivity and internet services restrictions in Pakistan on Election Day and called it a violation of human rights and freedom of expression, reported The News on Thursday.

A GSMA representative reached out to Caretaker IT Minister Umar Saif to express the organisation’s concerns regarding the restrictions placed on connectivity and internet services in Pakistan during the lead-up to the 2024 General Elections, on election day itself, and the subsequent ongoing decline in the service quality.

According to the publication, the international body stated that these curbs violated individuals’ rights, as outlined in international human rights conventions.

“Prolonged restrictions can also have far-reaching negative effects on citizens’ health, education social and economic welfare and damage trust. In addition to the harm imposed on businesses, restrictions can disrupt credit and investment plans, ultimately damaging the country’s reputation for managing the economy and foreign investment.

The GSMA discourages the use of service restriction orders. Any such orders should be supported by continuous monitoring of the situation and its impact, together with analysis and dynamic decision-making processes allowing for swift restoration of services. The powers to restrict services should be exercised carefully solely in exceptional and pre-defined circumstances, that is consistent with relevant laws, internationally recognised human rights conventions and the ITU constitution.”

Internet shutdown and restrictions in Pakistan

While boasting of being among the top internet user population globally, Pakistan struggles with internet availability, ranking low compared to its peers, while reportedly authorities intermittently disrupt access to social media platforms.

Internet shutdowns directly contradict constitutionally guaranteed rights like freedom of information (Article 19-A), freedom of speech (Article 19), and freedom of association (Article 17). In its February 2018 ruling, the Islamabad High Court declared internet shutdowns against fundamental rights and constitution.

Ahead of the February 8 general elections, users were unable to access several social media sites, for which authorities concerned blamed an error. However, on the polling day, mobile signals were turned off to avoid terrorism, according to the caretaker government. Following the sought-after polls, there were repeated disruptions in accessing X.

Popular social media platform X, formerly Twitter, services remained largely restricted in Pakistan for over four days since Saturday, according to NetBlocks, a global internet monitor.

The government still keeping mum about the disruption that began on Saturday last week.

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