Pakistan internet disrupted again during opposition web broadcast

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan‘s social media and internet services were severely throttled Saturday night, as the party of jailed ex-prime minister Imran Khan held a “virtual rally” ahead of elections in under three weeks.
The outage of Facebook, X, Instagram and YouTube is the second in two weeks coinciding with online campaign events organised by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Elections scheduled for February 8 have been marred by allegations of pre-poll rigging, with analysts saying the military establishment — Pakistan’s political kingmakers — are squeezing Khan and PTI out of the race.
The event was due to broadcast PTI speeches by livestream but internet disruptions began in the early evening, before it began.
“We can confirm the nation-scale restriction of social media platforms across Pakistan,” said Alp Toker, Director of the Netblocks watchdog organisation monitoring cybersecurity and internet governance.
He told AFP the outage was “remarkably systematic” and “consistent with previous restrictions imposed during PTI events”.
Khan and many prominent PTI candidates have been barred from standing for election, and in-person campaigning has been thwarted by a crackdown forcing party leaders to defect or go underground.
Nonetheless, a Gallup Pakistan survey taken in December confirmed Khan is the nation’s most popular politician.
Google data shows PTI vastly outstripping competitors in online searches for political parties in Pakistan, with 80 per cent of the traffic.
Earlier this month, similar internet disruption marred PTI’s online campaign launch event.
– Keyboard campaigning –
Khan, 71, was ousted in 2022 after falling out with Pakistan’s powerful military leaders who backed him into power in 2018.
In opposition, he waged an unprecedented campaign of defiance against the military establishment which has directly ruled the nation for much of its history.
Khan accused them of engineering his removal from office in a no-confidence vote via a US-backed conspiracy, and of plotting an assassination attempt that saw him wounded.
The crackdown against PTI began after Khan’s brief arrest last May sparked riots, with Islamabad saying it had been targeted by “anti-state” violence.
Khan is currently languishing in jail after a second arrest in August, and has been barred from standing for office over a graft conviction.
He says the avalanche of legal cases burying him have been triggered by the military establishment to prevent him from leading PTI back to power.
PTI — credited with running a tech-savvy campaign in 2018 — has attempted to mobilise on social media to circumvent the restrictions.
As Khan grapples with the courts, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has returned from self-imposed exile and seen his corruption cases dissolve — a sign analysts say he is the army’s favoured candidate.
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