Violent riots erupted across Pakistan after the arrest of former prime minister and chairman of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan on May 9, leading to the suspension of internet services and social media access.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) justified the suspension as a measure to combat the spread of misinformation and provocative content online. However, human rights organisations expressed serious concerns, arguing that it violated the rights to information and freedom of expression, denying people access to vital information, disrupting healthcare access, and impeding journalists from documenting government actions through photos and videos.
Interestingly, analysts observed that the suspension did not quell protests but instead bolstered the PTI’s momentum. PTI workers used virtual private networks (VPNs) to issue protest calls and upload videos of clashes with law enforcement agencies (LEAs) in various parts of the country. Journalists and citizens also resorted to VPNs to report on developments during Khan’s period of arrest.
According to a recent study by 10VPN, the demand for VPN services surged by 489 percent on May 9 compared to the average daily demand in the previous 28 days.
On May 11, the Lahore High Court accepted a petition challenging the suspension of internet services and access to social media platforms. The petitioner argued that the move violated the country’s laws and the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The court issued notices to the federal government and the PTA, requiring them to submit replies by May 22.
On the same day, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah announced that internet access would likely be restored within the next 36 hours. However, on May 12, Sanaullah mentioned that the government would consult with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif about blocking internet services if tensions continued.
As tensions subsided following Khan’s release on bail by the Islamabad High Court on May 12, the PTA began restoring internet services under the MOI’s directives, although access to social media platforms remained blocked at the time of reporting.
Users and social media activists continue to demand the complete restoration of online platform access.
Jehan Ara, the founder of Katalyst Labs, questioned Pakistan’s claim to being a democracy, pointing out the repeated blocking of social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. She raised concerns about the state of democracy in the country, emphasizing that access to information and freedom of expression are supposedly guaranteed as basic human rights under the Constitution.
Maria Memon, a prominent anchorperson, highlighted that even Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif resorted to using a VPN to access Twitter due to its inaccessibility without it.
The suspension of internet services has resulted in estimated losses of over Rs. 2.49 billion in the telecom sector, with local e-commerce industries and services also reporting losses over the past four days.