Since the spread of coronavirus and social distancing being the only way out of this global pandemic, the world started to depend on the internet as the most crucial means of connectivity. From important tasks like transaction of money to shopping, learning, meetings -everything went online.
While most of Pakistan continues to enjoy the privilege of online connectivity, the country`s northwestern tribal belt that erstwhile formed the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is under the blackout of the internet service. The area has long suffered a legal, and administrative divide. The latest addition to this list of the divide is digital discrimination.
The internet services to the region were suspended in 2016 till date on security grounds.
The 600-kilometer long strip along the western border with Afghanistan, comprising of Bajaur and South Waziristan at the northern and southern ends respectively, consists of an estimated population of 3,341,080 people, that makes up approximately 2% of the country’s population.
From 1947 to 2018. the belt was governed under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).
The belt had been a hotbed for the influx of local terrorist outfits and their foreign cohorts in the past that conveniently thrived here for decades. According to Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, North Waziristan in the past served as the “ground zero” for local as well as international terror groups. The resultant militancy by the various extremist groups was followed by a string of military offensives conducted by the armed forces of Pakistan to wipe out the militants from the area and to retake control of FATA and adjacent areas.
The operations were largely successful.
On one hand, these counter-terrorism operations achieved the goal of exterminating the militant insurgency but on the other hand, this success came at the high cost of substantial damage to an already rudimentary infrastructure and economy of the territory resulting in half a million internally displaced families. According to reports, some of these IDPs from the area of Bannu, went on to form a nexus with the TTP associates hence rendering a looming apprehension of security threats in the form of sleeper cells of the militants camouflaged as civilians.
On 24 January 2017, the federal government decided to merge FATA with the neighboring Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Parliament passed the 25th Constitutional Amendment by repealing the colonial Frontier Crimes Regulations.
The process to restore peace and normalcy of routine life began at a slow pace in the absence of basic necessities of life ranging from the non-availability of clean drinking water to the uninhabitable homes. The resilient residents of this war-torn region, continue to go through a long-term suspension of those facilities that have been accepted as fundamental human rights in today`s trying times of a global pandemic, namely electricity, telephone connections, and internet access.
The merger of FATA with the province of KP and scrapping of the FCR provides the inhabitants of this troubled territory every basic right guaranteed by the Constitution to all citizens of Pakistan; freedom of expression and the right to information. The use of the internet as a fundamental right and a crucial means to connectivity being at the top under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The Internet was first made available in this area in 2005. During the operations against the menace of militancy, the government of Pakistan had been frequently suspending internet services. The concerned authorities have never explained exactly how access to the Internet can be a threat to security.
Radicalization, incitement to terrorism, or financing, training, and planning for terrorist activities including secret communication and open-source information and cyberattacks- all are how the internet can be utilized to support acts of terrorism.
However, there is no universal instrument that can specifically address the pervasive facet of terrorist activities involving the use of the internet. Keeping the citizens of Pakistan deprived of digital privilege amidst a global pandemic is discriminatory.
In April 2020, a court in Islamabad ordered the government of Pakistan to restore the Internet to the tribal belt but later the country’s Supreme Court set aside the order.
In a more recent development on May 6, 2021, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah heard the petition filed against the ‘black-out’ of the internet services in the tribal areas. The petitioner informed the court that a summary had already been sent to the Ministry of Defence with the suggestion of providing internet access to these areas followed by a reminder served on April 28, but to no avail.
The court directed the defense secretary, hinting at the initiation of contempt against court proceedings if delayed the forwarding of the summary to the federal cabinet for approval by June 7.