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Imagine waking up one morning only to find out that you can’t access your social media account or email—not because you need to reboot your router but because service has been suspended throughout the region for an indefinite period of time.
Such have been several dawns in Pakistan, where internet shutdowns are routine. During the festivities for Eid or religious events like Ashura, citizens are routinely cut off from the internet in what authorities call a “safety measure.” Often these shutdowns last for days, with cellphone service available only for a few hours during the night.
The situation is even worse in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA, where digital access is already fairly limited. Internet was first made available there in 2005: Since then, the government has frequently suspended internet services—for as long as two years during military operations, like one that lasted from 2010 to 2012. During these operations, the infrastructure was greatly affected in the territory, resulting in the long-term suspension of electricity, telephone connections, mobile networks, and broadband internet in most of the region. However, internet wasn’t really available in FATA until 2014. Even then, it was extremely limited: Only a few areas had working mobile networks, and people in nearby areas would extend those signals in their respective areas with available technical means like cheap routers and signal extenders.
But even that limited access is now gone. On June 12, 2016, 4.5 million FATA residents woke up to another intentional government internet suspension—one that targeted 3G/4G and portable internet devices, which accounted for most of the access in FATA. The shutdown emerged in the wake of armed clashes between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Torkham border on June 11, 2016. The authorities took immediate measures by suspending the few available mobile-based internet services in all seven agencies, or regions, of FATA. More than a year later, the shutdown is still ongoing.
There are some loopholes like access to Afghan telecom services by the border or, in very few cases, using expensive broadband internet. But broadband accounts for less than 5 percent of all internet connections there. Abid Wazir, a freelance researcher based in Islamabad who originally hails from South Waziristan in FATA, says, “Broadband connections can’t be acquired by domestic households unless the applicant is some influential person.” Institutions in search of broadband “first have to [submit a] request [to] the area’s political agent, who then transfers the request to the military forces. And only after the strict scrutiny and approval of the military officers can the connection be given. Even then, how well and often that connection would work—nobody can predict.”
Wazir adds that one of his friends in Wana set up a small internet cafe at his general store in early 2016, where people would come with their devices and use the broadband internet that he had acquired. But it was disrupted soon after, and he lost his once-thriving business.
FATA is a troubled area thanks to the military operations against terrorist organizations that have happened routinely in the region since 2004. According to a December 2016 UNHCR survey, a total of 74,826 registered families have been displaced in FATA. Thirteen years on, people are still living nomadic lives with limited or no access to basic necessities, including compulsory education guaranteed under the Constitution of Pakistan. But FATA is constitutionally not a complete part of Pakistan, and its residents are not full citizens, so they are not offered the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.
The internet may have come late to FATA, but people there quickly began using it as a tool for political engagement and awareness. One student told me that people in tribal areas were using online platforms to raise awareness on issues of the region, like the lack of electricity and unjust treatment of the security forces. For instance, the political movement against the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation, a law enacted in 1901 by the colonial British government that denies the people of FATA fundamental human rights, gained momentum through the internet in 2015. Now that activism is stifled. Samrena Khan, the president of the FATA Students Organisation, sees the blackout as an attempt to stifle the progress of the people of FATA. She says, “The authorities are scared of the potential that our people hold. They know that if we established connection with the global community, we’ll bring a revolution. This is why they’ve disrupted all channels of communications on us.” Her group held a protest against the shutdown on July 19.
Khan also said that “[l]ast year, 70,000 students were enrolled in the educational institutions across FATA. Out of these 70,000, 40,000 students didn’t have the required course books. Had it not been for the internet shutdown, the students would have access to online books.” But without that access, many dropped out, and Khan worries about students who may have turned to drugs—a major problem in FATA. Another student told me that the shutdown is greatly affecting his ability to seek scholarship opportunities abroad.
Women, already deeply vulnerable in Pakistani society at large, are even more oppressed in the tribal areas. Their mobility is very restricted—and now the roads to information have been shut to them. Moreover, many men from FATA move to Gulf states to work as manual laborers on construction sites. Before the shutdown, local entrepreneurs started internet cafes that people could use to talk to their family members abroad. Now that those cafes don’t exist anymore, people are forced to go months without talking to family members.
As you might expect, then, the internet shutdown makes it much harder for journalists to work in the area. Rasool Dawar, a journalist based in Peshawar, emphasizes that journalists in FATA often have to travel long distances to try to catch weak signals of mobile networks and report back to their editors. “Because there are no means of communications in FATA,” he says, “journalists have to travel 50 to 60 kilometers every day to Bannu and Peshawar”—about 31-38 miles over very rough roads—“to transfer news to the respective media houses. This tends to delay the delivery of news, which many times is … urgent.” For instance, on June 23, Parachinar—the capital of FATA’s Kurram Agency—witnessed twin bombings from one of the banned organizations. The residents, who have had to live alongside terrorist activities for the past few decades, organized a protest to demand justice and accountability from the government. But both the bomb blasts and subsequent protest received very little media coverage, largely due to unavailability of the internet.
Civil-rights activists and journalists in FATA have repeatedly submitted applications to security forces, asking them to restore the mobile and internet networks in the region. In response, the government said that it wants to help people but that technical issues are standing in the way. The government of Pakistan recently announced that three tribal agencies will soon have 3G mobile networks, at least, but it is believed that the networks won’t be restored in the rest of FATA for another couple of years due to technical complications. In the meantime, the people of FATA deserve the support from the global community. “We won’t back down because this is the fight for our rights, and no one can take that away from us,” Khan said. She and others continue to be optimistic that someday soon, they’ll be granted the constitutional rights that have actively been denied to them.