Cyber Steward partner organization Bytes for All (B4A), based in Pakistan, joined with ARTICLE 19 to condemn a proposal developed by the government of Sindh Province for a three-month ban on instant messaging apps Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp. The provincial government maintained that this proposed ban is part of an effort to block access to networks used by criminals and terrorists for their activities. Legal experts in Pakistan argue that the ban is legally justifiable as the 1996 Telecommunications (Reorganisation) Act allows communication services to be suspended for security concerns. However, B4A and ARTICLE 19 have criticized the proposal as incompatible with international human rights standards.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Pakistan is a signatory, accepts restrictions on free expression and access to information only if these restrictions are legally based, implemented for a legitimate aim, and are completely proportionate to those aims. B4A and ARTICLE 19 argue that the blanket ban on these services is extreme and disproportionate, and is therefore in violation of a central tenet of the Covenant. Furhan Hussain, coordinator for advocacy and outreach for B4A, also described the proposed ban as a “blow to the human rights and civic liberties of people.”
Other civil society organizations, politicians, and journalists also voiced their objections to the proposal. Pakistani advocacy group Bolo Bhi criticized the move, saying that the ban will negatively impact the local economy and families who rely on instant messaging platforms to communicate with members living abroad. The Sindh government has also been accused of being unclear as to how the ban will practically inhibit criminal and terrorist communication in the province. Other commentators have noted that many websites and pages associated with militant groups remain active, which raises questions as to the government’s intentions for and efficacy of the ban.
While Sindh’s Information Minister Sharjeel Memon has expressed his regrets for the “inconvenience” caused by the proposed ban, the province’s government has pledged to contact the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in order to move ahead with the blocking of the three messaging services. Pakistan’s Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has stated that he is not in favour of any ban on messaging applications due to the country’s ineffective experience in jamming mobile communications to combat violent activity. The Interior Ministry will, however, consider the Sindh government’s proposal to see “how much significance the demand carries.” It is unclear when this ban is supposed to come into effect.