People commute on a street filled with election campaign banners and posters in Lahore, Pakistan, on February 5, 2024.
People commute on a street filled with election campaign banners and posters in Lahore, Pakistan, on February 5, 2024. CPJ has called on authorities to ensure unfettered internet access throughout the February 8 elections. (Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar)

Pakistan restricts internet in Balochistan ahead of polls, blocks news website

New York, February 6, 2024—Pakistani authorities must allow journalists to work freely and safely in the run-up to elections on February 8, allow nationwide access to the internet, and unblock the investigative news website FactFocus, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

Internet services will be temporarily restricted in “sensitive” polling booths across Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province ahead of Thursday’s elections to mitigate risks that “terrorists may exploit social media platforms… for communication purposes,” provincial information minister Jan Achakzai announced on February 4.

Separately, the regulatory Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked access to FactFocus on January 31 on the grounds that the website was hosting content “with intent to ridicule, defame the Armed Forces,” FactFocus said in a February 2 statement that included a copy of the PTA notice. FactFocus said that it was due to publish an investigation related to the elections when the block was announced.

The news website came under a “severe attack” on February 1, Ahmad Noorani, co-founder of FactFocus, told CPJ from exile in the U.S, adding that the outlet was working to reinstate access to the website.

“Pakistan authorities must immediately reverse repressive measures aimed at curtailing journalists’ ability to report freely in the lead-up to the February 8 polls,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Beh Lih Yi. “Blocking critical reporting and hindering access to an open flow of information will only raise more questions about the election, which is already under scrutiny for its legitimacy.”

Political tensions have been high ahead of the election, with a crackdown on the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, headed by former prime minister Imran Khan, who has been in prison since August. In late January, there were several deadly incidents, including attacks by separatist suicide bombers and Islamic State in Balochistan.

Since 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.

CPJ and partners in the #KeepItOn coalition—a global network of more than 300 organizations—urged Pakistan’s government in a letter on Tuesday to ensure unfettered access to the internet and social media platforms, and to uphold a court order directing the same uninterrupted access

The Balochistan government’s secretariat and the PTA did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.