After countless sacrifices of its people and as many operations, peace has finally returned to erstwhile Fata. Parliament passed the 25th Constitutional Amendment, by repealing the colonial FCR.
Consequently, former Fata has been merged with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Resultantly, the people of Fata got the same rights available as the rest of Pakistan does.
If we look into the past, the government has regularly restricted access to the internet or has blocked it completely, since the introduction of broadband internet to the Fata region in the year 2005. The government cited the worsening security situation in the area as the reason. However, the government has failed to cite any material evidence or solid reasons for why it has always ‘proportionated’ the provision of internet services in erstwhile Fata with ‘security’.
Since the very unfortunate outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic, when the people have been forced into self-quarantine, a 15 percent increase has been noticed in internet traffic, countrywide. Meaning thereby that people in the entire country are enjoying their digital rights and have access to various online facilities.
Sadly, the people of former Fata are still deprived of such facilities. Today, in Fata, except for a few areas of District Bajaur, 3G/4G internet service is not available. They have been deprived of their digital rights which also infringes upon their political, social, economic rights and other ancillary human rights.
For instance, during the lockdown, due to the Covid-19 epidemic, the State Bank of Pakistan issued directives to all commercial banks to waive all charges on funds transfers through online banking channels. Ostensibly, “the objective of these measures is to reduce the need for visiting bank branches or the ATMs and to promote the use of Digital Payment Services such as internet banking, mobile phone banking etc”. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of erstwhile Fata cannot avail such facilities due to curbs on the internet.
Similarly, the agonies of students in former Fata came to the spotlight when the discussion on online classes for university students began during this Covid-19 epidemic. Sadly, many of the students of Fata are against such an initiative, since they are cut off from the rest of the world, without access to the internet. In such a scenario, how will the students of former Fata study and compete when they don’t have internet access?
Likewise, last week, the prime minister launched the ICT City App for the provision of “online civic services, as to protect citizens from long queues and long waiting times in government offices”. This app provides 43 different services including “e-policing, emergency services, domiciles, identity cards, passports land-based, arms licenses, vehicle registration, token tax payments, birth and death certificates and other facilities”. We are happy about such an innovative initiative, but the government should not treat its people with discrimination when all have equal constitutional rights.
Although this issue has been raised on various platforms, there have been no fruitful results. For instance, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution for restoration of internet and mobile services in the former Fata region, but due to mysterious obstructions, till date, the said resolution has not been privileged.
Similarly, some brave parliamentarians have also raised this issue on the floor of the National Assembly, but sadly they were responded to with vague answers by government representatives. At the social media level, students, political and human rights activists have regularly raised a voice for the restoration of 3G/4G internet, but their voices have also gone unheard.
Prime Minister Imran Khan in his visit to District Mohmand last month promised the restoration of 3G/4G internet services and had deputed Federal Minister for Communication and Postal ServiceMurad Saeed, but nothing has been done yet. Locals of these areas are desperately looking towards the PTI governments in the province and the centre for the restoration of 3G/4G service in the tribal districts.
After the FCR has been repealed and people have been constitutionally protected, such continuity of the colonial policy of repression by depriving people of the modern means of information and connectivity can never help improve security.
The government has not only failed to restore internet services in erstwhile Fata but has also failed to inform the public of the impediments in restoration of internet services. Today, in this emergency due to Covid-19, it’s imperative upon the government to restore 3G/4G services in former Fata.
The government should realize that the people of the Fata region cannot be educated about the Covid-19 epidemic when their access to social media and their rights to information, communication and expression have been taken away.
The people, and especially the youth, of erstwhile Fata deserve to be given their rights and due opportunities. The United Nations Human Rights Council has also condemned the “countries that intentionally disrupt citizen’s internet access”. Ostensibly, the UNHRC has emphasized that "the same rights people have offline must also be protected online". Other international human rights bodies have also interpreted restriction on internet access as a human rights violation. Therefore, it is imperative upon the government to honour its national and international obligations by removing curbs on internet access for the people of erstwhile Fata.
The writer is a Peshawar-based lawyer.
Email: [email protected] gmail.com
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