As the Internet emerged as the backbone of global communications during the coronavirus pandemic, activists and students in some remote Pakistani regions braved beatings and arrests to protest a lack of Internet access during lockdown.
But online and street protests, court cases, and resolutions in the parliament have all so far failed to prompt Pakistan to grant Internet access to millions in regions reeling from decades of conflict, poverty, and underdevelopment.
In the latest development, the provincial legislature in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province this week adopted a unanimous resolution calling on the federal authorities to “provide Internet on an emergency basis” to parts of the province that once served as the key theater in the global war on terrorism.
“In the 21st century, districts from Bajaur to South Waziristan are deprived of 3G and 4G networks or any Internet connectivity,” lawmaker Mir Kalam Wazir told Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial assembly on July 6. Bajaur and South Waziristan are at the northern and southern ends, respectively, of the 600-kilometer strip that previously formed the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. “This is a major issue for us,” he added.
Since March, students across FATA have protested the lack of Internet access since the coronavirus pandemic forced universities to shut down campuses and instead rely on online classes. Late last month police in Quetta, capital of the restive southwestern Balochistan Province, arrested some 100 students who rallied to demand Internet access. In the mountainous northwestern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, which borders China, students protested this week with the same demand.
While Islamabad has promised Internet access to these regions, senior officials say a lack of funding and infrastructure prevents them from successfully bridging the widening digital divide where many rural areas have little or no Internet access.
Islamabad has mobilized some public and private resources to build the infrastructure, but senior officials have yet to say why tens of millions of Pakistanis still cannot access the Internet despite education and many businesses depending on connectivity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Pakistani state often cites security reasons for denying the basic right of the Internet, which is linked to accessing the right to freedom of expression and the right to information,” Usama Khilji, the director of Bolo Bhi, an Internet freedom and advocacy watchdog, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “This narrative must be challenged, as millions of Pakistanis are being denied the basic linked rights of education and access to critical health-related information, as well.”
Khilji says Islamabad has announced access for a few districts of former FATA. “But matters for most other tribal districts, Balochistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan remain outstanding,” he said. “There has been radio silence on this issue, which is unacceptable.”
Authorities have never explained how exactly access to the Internet endangers or threatens security, but Khilji says there is little evidence that depriving entire communities of the Internet somehow protects them.
“Instead of shutting or denying the Internet, they should go after the militant groups, some of whom are regrouping in the tribal areas,” he said, alluding to increasing violence in former FATA, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed and millions displaced during a decade of unrest following the emergence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In April, a court in Islamabad ordered the government to restore Internet to former FATA. But the country’s supreme court later set aside the order. The country told the court that the Interior Ministry had suspended Internet access to former FATA due to security concerns, according to reports in the local media.
Amin ul Haque, Pakistan’s information technology minister, says some 35 percent of Pakistan’s nearly 800,000-square-kilometer territory lacks Internet infrastructure. “There is an urban and rural divide,” he told Diplomat magazine. “Most private companies invest in urban towns for commercial reasons and benefits. They refrain from investing in rural and far[-flung] areas.”
In April, the Universal Service Fund, an entity established by the government and funded by mobile operators, awarded a contract of more than $550,000 to establish broadband infrastructure in Kurram, one of the former FATA districts.
Earlier this month, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, the main telecom regulator, told a parliamentary committee in the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament that authorities were adding some 4,900 new landline Internet connections to the existing 9,000 in former FATA. With a population of more than 6 million, a few thousand connections, mostly limited to government offices, cannot meet the rising demand for Internet in the vast region.
In Balochistan, nine of its 32 districts have no Internet access. The vast province bordering Iran and Afghanistan has been reeling from a separatist insurgency for more than two decades, and tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in militant attacks and military operations.
Gilgit-Baltistan, home to some of the tallest mountains in the world and bordering China and the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir with India, also lacks digital infrastructure. “I have to walk kilometers daily to attend my classes,” Rasheed Kamil, a student from the region, wrote on Twitter. Students in the region have been trending #Internet4GilgitBaltistan this month to demand Internet connectivity.
With 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile Internet (3/4G) connections, Pakistan’s Internet access rate stands at around 35 percent for a population of more than 220 million. It ranks 76th out of 100 worldwide, according to the Inclusive Internet Index 2019.
Bolo Bhi and Digital Rights Foundation, two Pakistani organizations advocating that Internet access be recognized as a fundamental right, have warned of the dangers of a widening digital divide in the country.
“During these times, the digital divide will exasperate the existing structural inequalities in society as services and resources will concentrate among the already connected, leaving behind those who are most vulnerable to economic and social upheaval,” they warned in a March statement.
The protests across the country since then show that many Pakistanis are increasingly mobilizing and organizing to demand what they view as a basic right and fundamental necessity of the modern age.