Polling station staff empty a ballot box after polls closed during the general election, in Lahore, Pakistan, on February 8, 2024.
Polling station staff empty a ballot box after polls closed during the general election, in Lahore, Pakistan, on February 8, 2024. Authorities said they suspended phone and internet services due to security threats. (Reuters/Navesh)

CPJ condemns phone and internet disruptions, barring of journalists during Pakistan election

New York, February 8, 2024—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the cell phone service suspension and widespread internet disruptions as Pakistan went to the polls on Thursday, with reports of journalists prevented from coverage in some areas.

“Cutting off mobile communication services on an election day and preventing journalists from reporting from polling stations severely undermines citizens’ rights to stay informed,” said CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator Beh Lih Yi. “These heavy-handed measures raise serious questions about Pakistan’s commitment to democracy and human rights. A free and fair election requires independent media reporting and unhampered access to information.”

Despite the regulatory Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) earlier promise to maintain access to internet services on election day, the interior ministry announced on Thursday that mobile services had been suspended on grounds of security threats.

Dozens of people were killed in twin bombings in southwestern Baluchistan province, the previous day. Islamic State claimed responsibility for one of the attacks.

The internet watchdog Netblocks said that internet blackouts were also widely reported in multiple regions in Pakistan, in addition to mobile services being cut. Journalists in the capital of Islamabad told CPJ they could not use their cell phones and experienced difficulties accessing the internet.

Meanwhile, a reporter with Al Jazeera told CPJ that a team of journalists from the news network was barred from entering a polling station in Pakistan’s second-largest city, Lahore. Police officials at the polling station cited orders from “top management” to prevent media teams entering the premises, the reporter said.

Media were also barred from reporting in several polling stations in Malir district, which is part of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, according to The Express Tribune newspaper.

Ahead of the elections, CPJ called on Pakistani authorities to allow nationwide access to the internet, and unblock the investigative news website FactFocus.

Since former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from power in April 2022, mainstream news channels have ceased coverage of the politician following a de facto ban and a number of press freedom violations were documented by CPJ.

The PTA and the Election Commission of Pakistan did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.