The latest skirmish over internet freedoms in Pakistan began over the weekend and flamed out by Monday, but it exposed the country’s deep tensions over what people can see online.

On Satudray, a member of Pakistan’s Senate submitted a resolution demanding the ban of popular social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and X (formerly Twitter) in the country. The proposal followed months of social media shutdowns and internet disruptions tied to the country’s general election.

According to the document, social media platforms “are adversely affecting the young generation in the country” by spreading “negative and malicious propaganda” against the military and promoting “fake leadership.”

In an interview with a Pakistani news site, Sen. Bahramand Tangi said that the majority of people in the country “misuse” social media. He specifically accused journalists of “openly working for political parties” and promoting their “propaganda” through social media platforms.

The resolution was withdrawn on Monday following intense criticism over the potential violation of people’s constitutional right to freedom of expression. However, the threat of restrictive measures on social media and the internet still looms in Pakistan, experts say.

The problem is that the government’s legal toolkit is already quite significant, said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Policy Director at digital rights organization Access Now.

In 2022, the government passed a decree amending the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to make online “defamation” of authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense with harsh penalties.

Last month, Pakistan’s authorities arrested independent journalist Asad Ali Toor, who allegedly breached PECA laws through what authorities called an “explicit and malicious” campaign against the judiciary. He remained in custody for five days.

The country’s government and telecom authority “regularly exercise very intrusive and problematic powers” to block or disrupt access to specific websites and communication channels, Chima said.

They are also “more than happy” to switch off the internet completely — either at the provincial or even nationwide level — during protests or demonstrations, he added.

The recent X ban

The senator’s legislative proposal came at a time when Pakistanis were already sensitive about limits on social media. On February 17, authorities restricted access to X amid “escalating unrest and protests over allegations of election fraud and following a high-level resignation and public admission of vote manipulation by a senior election official,” according to the reports by internet monitoring service NetBlocks.

Pakistan’s opposition party, PTI, has alleged widespread manipulation in the counting and results of the February 8 election. The party officials have stated that they will continue street protests and legal cases to reclaim what they call “a stolen mandate.”

On Monday, Pakistan finally appointed Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister. His PML-N party came second in the poll. Independent candidates backed by PTI won the most seats but failed to secure a majority.

While all of these political events were unfolding, access to X remained largely restricted for users for nearly two weeks.

While attempting to access the platform on Friday, one of the Pakistani citizens interviewed by Recorded Future News encountered the following message:

X social media app message to Pakistan users, February 2024

“Twitter is intermittently accessible in Pakistan. Mostly, it has been inaccessible. Users here have been using VPNs to access it but now, the state is considering banning VPNs as well,” he said. As of Tuesday, accessibility was still potentially a problem, according to the website DownDetector.

The local authorities have “failed to provide a lawful basis for the measure, which violates the public’s fundamental right to free expression at a critical moment,” NetBlocks said about the X restrictions.

Politicians across South Asia, including in Pakistan, often look at X with deep interest because it serves “as a window to the world,” revealing what’s happening in the country, according to Chima. It also provides a platform for expressing alternative views and criticizing the current political establishment.

PTI, the opposition party, has 10 million followers on X. When the party’s leader, imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan, held a virtual rally earlier in January ahead of the general elections, the majority of social media platforms were shut down in the country even before the start of the event’s live stream, leaving many users unable to participate.

Pakistan’s telecommunication authority blamed the nationwide internet disruptions on a “technical failure.”

Similar social media outages ahead of online campaign events organized by Khan’s party occurred at the beginning of January and in December.

PTI called such outages “desperate tactics” deployed by the sitting government and recommended that Pakistani users use virtual private networks (VPN) to access blocked social media platforms. However, VPN services, which can help people dodge internet blockages, are widely restricted in Pakistan, according to NetBlocks.

While attempting to silence opposition voices on X, the government also barred Pakistani media from reporting Khan’s speeches or rallies on TV and directed all TV channels to stop giving airtime to journalists considered close to Khan and individuals accused of criticizing the military or the government.

Internet outages

On election day in February, Pakistani authorities cut internet access across the country citing “security grounds.” The day before the election, two terrorist attacks killed nearly 30 people in Balochistan province — home to a low-level insurgency and various militant groups.

The suspension of mobile services was criticized by opposition groups and international observers, including Access Now and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“We were surprised that internet and mobile connectivity were switched off on election day when the ballots were cast and while the counting of the votes was taking place,” Chima said. “That was perhaps one of the most dramatic uses of internet shutdowns during the election in South Asia.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Khan’s advisor Zulfi Bukhari described the internet shutdown on election day as “a form of rigging.”

“When you wake up in the morning, you must message a certain number that tells you your polling station and the address,” he said. Besides, many voters were also dependent on ride-hailing services to get to their polling stations.

Similar internet shutdowns happen in Pakistan during political protests that challenge the Pakistani military or parts of the political establishment, according to Chima.

Unlike social media restrictions that users can overcome by using VPNs, internet or mobile network outages are often impossible to deal with.

The disruption to mobile connectivity is especially problematic for people from low-income backgrounds as they rely on mobile phones rather than fixed internet to go online.

Chima believes that the local government will keep using internet shutdowns and will try to put more pressure on social media platforms to proactively censor content that can be harmful to the current regime.

Local and international digital rights organizations are calling on civil society and policymakers “to mobilize against all efforts to impose such arbitrary curbs, including reports of a ban on all VPNs, and demands that X be restored immediately.”

“If indeed the Senate is concerned about the future of this country’s youth … its efforts would be better served to tackle such issues as youth unemployment, access to education, and rampant misogyny rather than acting as an outmoded ‘thought-police’,” said Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement.