In Pakistan, Senegal and Sudan, networks are down — and it’s no accident

Ellery Roberts Biddle

 

Pakistani authorities shut down mobile phone services, including access to the internet, across most of the country just hours before polls were set to open for elections this week, in which hundreds of seats were being contested in the National Assembly. The mobile outage caused confusion among voters trying to find polling places and chaos for poll workers and election observers who would normally rely on mobile connections to coordinate their work. 

But the shutdown came as no surprise — Pakistan’s election season has seen a smattering of network outages, most of them close in time to online events promoting the campaigns of parliamentary candidates for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI, the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Although he was not on the ballot, the election was seen as a proxy contest for Khan, who has been in jail since May and was recently dealt a combined sentence of 24 years behind bars after he was convicted on charges of corruption and leaking state secrets. Social media has been a cornerstone of campaign strategy for PTI candidates, who have robust support among younger voters. 

In the lead-up to elections, anxiety that internet outages would occur led advocates to seek a court order prohibiting such a move — and this was granted two weeks back by the Sindh High Court. But after 30 people were killed on February 7, a day before the elections, in bombings targeting election offices in the Balochistan province, the Ministry of Interior demanded the network suspension, arguing that it would be necessary “to maintain the law and order situation.”

Candidates for PTI and other political parties were quick to cast doubt on the government’s justification for the shutdown. Jibran Nasir, an assembly candidate in Karachi and lawyer, lambasted the current caretaker government for the decision. 

“The power brokers are not only against our freedom of expression but also our right to information,” he wrote on X. “Anything which empowers the people is despised by the ruling class.”

There was also speculation that the shutdown was intended to obscure efforts to tamper with ballots. “Quite impressed at the audacity of still keeping mobile networks blocked even at 2am,” wrote Ammar Rashid, a campaign worker with the Awami Workers Party. “Looks like the ‘security’ threat behind the communication blockade will stay active as long as there are still election results to shape.”

GLOBAL NEWS

Internet connections have also been down in Sudan since last Friday, amid the latest chapter in the country’s civil war, which erupted in the capital Khartoum in April. Sources inside Sudan’s two largest telecom operators told Reuters that the Rapid Support Forces  — the group formerly known as the Janjaweed militia, notorious for carrying out the genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s — are  behind the outage, but RSF has denied the accusation. Both RSF and the Sudanese army, which it is fighting against, have hit the internet kill switch before. But this time around, with the RSF having seized control of Khartoum where both telcos are located, it sure looks like the guilty party.

The blackout has left most people in the country unable to communicate, call for help, find out what’s happening or even get into their bank accounts. It has only compounded an already terrifying war in which an estimated 13,000 people have been killed and millions displaced from both the capital and the embattled Darfur region.

Senegalese officials have jumped on the internet blackout bandwagon too. Thousands took to the streets after Senegalese President President Macky Sall decided to postpone national elections by 10 months, a move that will extend his own tenure well beyond April, when he was meant to complete his final term in office. Sall’s government spent much of its political capital last year in efforts to thwart the campaign of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who is currently behind bars after being convicted of “corrupting a minor.”

Iran’s supreme leader has finally been kicked off Facebook. The official Facebook and Instagram accounts for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were suspended this week, due to Khamenei’s messages promoting Hamas and the Houthis. Both appear on Meta’s “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals List,” which includes thousands of groups and individuals whose names trigger Meta’s censorship mechanisms. Mahsa Alimardani, a PhD candidate at Oxford and expert on censorship in Iran, noted that Khamenei’s page had promoted “hate speech, incitement to violence and other offenses against his own people for years, with no recourse despite going against Meta’s own policies.” “It is a shame he wasn’t banned sooner,” she wrote. Khamenei still maintains active accounts on X.

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