Digital darkness in Pakistan

Sabir Hussain

Pakistan with 128 million internet users is grappling with an unprecedented assault on their digital rights. The battleground is not marked by tanks and missiles but by throttled bandwidth and targeted shutdowns, plunging the nation into repeated episodes of digital darkness. Less than two months into 2024, the country faces a severe crackdown on freedom of expression, particularly evident in the prolonged disruption of social media platforms during a crucial election period.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the regulator for telecom and internet services, has become a silent architect of these disruptions, leaving users in the dark without warning or explanation. This clandestine approach raises serious concerns about the rule of law and undermines Pakistan’s aspirations to expand its digital economy.

This is not the first time Pakistan has witnessed such internet disruptions, especially during the periods of political turmoil. The arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2023 led to a four-day blackout, and social media applications have allegedly been blocked on multiple occasions over the past year. With a ranking as the third-highest country imposing nationwide restrictions, these actions cast a shadow over the nation’s commitment to democratic principles.

The ramifications of these disruptions extend far beyond mere inconvenience. Internet censorship not only violates the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and access to information but also inflicts severe damage on economic activity and essential services.

According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, a 24-hour suspension of internet services results in a financial setback of 1.3 billion rupees ($15.6 million), equivalent to 0.57 percent of the nation’s average daily gross domestic product. Pakistan, boasting the third-largest base of freelance workers globally, faces the risk of halting years of progress and alienating the foreign clients. In an interconnected world, digital access is not a luxury but a necessity, and its deliberate curtailment stifles innovation and progress.

Authoritarian governments worldwide have increasingly weaponized internet disruptions to crush dissent, violating the principles of proportionality and necessity. The Global Network Initiative has consistently opposed such intentional restrictions, highlighting their ineffectiveness as people often find alternative, less secure channels to access applications when faced with restrictions.

The growing online outrage among Pakistanis has fueled the waves of protest against perceived election rigging, challenging the legitimacy of the democratic process. The telecom authority’s dismissal of the recent outage as a ‘technical glitch’ does little to assuage suspicions among international partners, who view it as a concerning step towards digital authoritarianism.

In the absence of a precise and transparent legal basis for these restrictions, Pakistan is on a dangerous path, eroding the democratic principles and hindering the economic progress. The future of democracy is no longer solely determined at the ballot box; the internet and social media have become powerful tools for advancing participatory governance. From crowdsourcing solutions to exposing corruption, these platforms enable citizens to connect directly with their representatives, hold them accountable, and enjoy the fundamental human rights in a democratic society.

As Pakistan has undergone a transition in leadership, it must reflect on its approach and convince the world and its citizens that fostering peace, internet, economy and democracy is paramount. The path forward should embrace transparency, respect for democratic values, and a commitment to protecting the fundamental right to freedom of expression, ensuring that the digital darkness plaguing the nation becomes a relic of the past.

The writer is a journalist and Editor S&T at Sunrise Today, based in Islamabad. He covers science and technology, climate change, environmental issues, energy crisis, public health, education, Afghan refugees and international affairs. He may be reached on Twitter/X: @EngSabirHussain, or by email:

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