A Pakistani media watchdog has urged authorities to immediately restore Internet access in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where millions of residents have been barred from going online for more than a year.
In a statement, Bolo Bhi, a nonprofit advocacy group promoting Internet access, said a government suspension of Internet access in June last year has deprived more than 5 million residents of seven tribal districts that form an arch along the country’s western border with Afghanistan and are collectively called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
“Security is often the reason cited for taking these measures, but the threat is rarely defined clearly,” the September 19 statement noted. “The authorities have not cited any evidence of how the ban of Internet improves security.”
Bolo Bhi, Urdu for “speaking up,” said the Internet access in FATA was suspended after Pakistani and Afghan forces clashed near the Torkham border crossing in FATA’s Khyber tribal district last June.
“Since the introduction of broadband services in FATA in 2005, the government has regularly restricted access to the Internet or blocked it altogether,” the organization said.
Bolo Bhi’s findings suggest that FATA’s North and South Waziristan agencies or tribal districts currently lack any broadband connectivity. In the more northern tribal districts of Khyber, Bajaur, and Kurram, broadband connections are limited to larger towns.
“The bigger problem is that mobile Internet services are unavailable to users in FATA,” it said.
In recent decades, Pakistan has undergone a telecommunications revolution. With the growth of cellular telephone connections, the number of mobile Internet users is expected to grow from the current 43 million. A recent census established that Pakistan’s population now stands at more than 200 million people.
In a sign that Islamabad is relenting, FATA Secretariat, a government organization tasked with overseeing service delivery and development projects in the region, approved the restoration of Internet to Khyber, Bajaur, and Mohmand tribal districts. Internet users in Bajaur reported that they can now access 2G services.
“This is a welcome step and should be extended to the other four agencies of FATA, namely Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan, immediately,” Bolo Bhi’s statement said.
For more than a decade, FATA has been a central front in the global war on terror. More than 50,000 FATA residents were killed in militant attacks and Pakistani counterterrorism sweeps, which also displaced nearly 3 million residents. While a tenuous peace has returned to FATA, with most of its displaced residents returning to their homes, the region is still being run under an archaic colonial-era law, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).
“Inhabitants of FATA are thus denied their fundamental human rights and have no legal or political avenue to challenge their oppression,” the statement said.