ARTICLE 19 and Bytes for All, Pakistan, condemn the authorities in Pakistan for the practise of implementing regional and city-wide bans on mobile phone networks – so-called ‘kill switch’ tactics – in Balochistan and other parts of the country. The kill switch has been implemented at times of national celebration, most recently on Eid Day on 20 August 2012. We call on the Pakistan authorities to refrain from developing and applying these techniques as they are incompatible with the fundamental right to freedom of expression and freedom of information.
On Eid, 20 August 2012, the authorities in Pakistan implemented yet another ‘kill-switch’: a complete shutdown of all cellular phone networks in several parts of the country. Similar kill switches have been enforced on Pakistan’s Independence Day (14 August 2012) and Pakistan Day (23 March 2012), when the authorities ordered the complete shutdown of mobile phone services in Balochistan, a province in the south west of the country. Reports suggest that the Interior Ministry ordered the shutdowns in the interests of national security and to prevent terrorist attacks.
ARTICLE 19 notes that various measures to combat terrorism and their impact on freedom of expression have been a matter of extensive debate in Pakistan for a number of years. At the same time, Pakistan is subject to international laws protecting the right to freedom of expression, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Freedom of expression may be restricted in order to protect public order and national security and the State has a duty to protect its people from terrorist threats. However, international human rights standards mandate that human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, must be respected in the fight against terrorism and cannot be arbitrarily limited. For example, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1456 (2003) provides that:
“[S]tates must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, and should adopt such measures in accordance with international law, in particular international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law.”
The UN Human Rights Commission has also issued resolutions reminding nations to “refrain from using counter-terrorism as a pretext to restrict the right to freedom of opinion and expression in ways which are contrary to their obligations under international law.”
The 2010 Joint Declaration of four international mandates on freedom of expression identified the abuse of the concept of “national security” to impose overly broad restrictions on freedom of expression as a key challenge for this decade. Further, under the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, restrictions on freedom of expression in the name of national security may be imposed only where the speech is intended to incite imminent violence and there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence.
ARTICLE 19 believes that recent shutdowns of mobile phone networks in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, violate these international human rights standards and represent arbitrary and indiscriminate restrictions on the people’s right to freedom of expression. The Pakistan authorities’ reliance on the protection of national security as justification for the kill switches is illegitimate. The shutdowns amounted to complete censorship of any and all communications between people living in the country. Citizens and journalists alike are prevented from making or receiving any mobile phone calls on the most important celebration days in the national calendar. The shutdowns prevented people from contacting families and friends as well as making emergency calls.
The authorities undertook these measures without demonstrating – in a specific and individual way – the precise nature of the alleged terrorist threat. In addition, the use of a kill switch is disproportionate as it is not the least restrictive method available to the authorities. Proper security, surveillance and anti-terrorism activities should be targeted and specialised rather than general and overbroad.
ARTICLE 19 recalls that the fight against terrorism will be self-defeating if the priority of protecting human rights is sacrificed. Authorities in Pakistan need to address the root causes of terrorism rather than resort to disproportionate and reactionary tactics. The blanket ban on mobile communications in Balochistan and other parts of the country fails to strike a fair balance between combating terrorism and safeguarding fundamental human rights.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the authorities in Pakistan to recognise their obligations under international law, to cease all orders for blanket shutdowns of mobile phone networks and ensure that the measures adopted to combat terrorism respects and protects the right to freedom of expression.
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information are a set of principles on freedom of expression and national security developed by a group of experts from around the world and endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.