May 29, 2023

Virtual persecution: FATA denied basic right of access to internet

On May 24, 2018, the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment to incorporate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This was the 31st amendment to the constitution. A large number of government and opposition members were present in the house on the occasion.

There were 229 votes in favor of the constitutional amendment while one member opposed it. Opponents of the amendment included members of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.

FATA areas that form part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa include Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, Kurram, North and South Waziristan, Khyber and Orakzai agencies besides FR Peshawar, FR Bannu, FR Kohat, FR Lakki Marwat, FR Dera Ismail. Khan and FR Tank areas were included.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had formed a committee in 2015 to include FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Qadir Baloch was among them.

Following the arrival of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) federal government on June 12, 2019, the government announced in the budget for the financial year 2019 in which the government had announced to provide Rs152 billion for ongoing and new projects in the merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

The then Minister of State Hamad Azhar said the federal government would provide Rs 152 billion for the ongoing and development expenditure of the newly joined tribal districts in KP. The budget also includes a 10-year development plan for which the government will provide Rs 48 billion. This ten-year package is part of a trillion rupees that will be provided by both the federal and provincial governments.

Three years later, the districts of the former FATA, which are now integrated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are still deprived of facilities by the federal government. The federal governments of PML-N and PTI have claimed billions of rupees but the situation is as it is. Basic infrastructure is still lacking.

“Our ability to think and understand is better when we have better information. The Internet has greatly improved our thinking and decision-making abilities. Imagine for a second you were transported into the karmic driven world of Earl. Could you read books of other and opposite faiths in front of your parents, relatives, wife, husband in your home? I personally think this was not possible for the majority of Pakistanis,” asks digital rights activist Maham Mansoor.

Before the formation of Pakistan, listening to German radio was punished during the British rule. During the rule of General Zia, watching movies on VCR was a crime. Even today in Pakistan, it is a crime to run news of ‘enemy country’. Such measures inevitably affect our decision-making ability. The Internet is slowly changing the concepts, values, ideas, and traditions of our society.

The Internet has had many positive effects on Pakistani society in the field of education. Many of the problems associated with teaching were solved by the Internet, including access to electronic libraries, online e-books, and audio, video lectures on various educational topics from home. In addition, many Pakistani youth have set up educational websites through personal efforts on which students are getting opportunities to have various educational notes, pre-school papers, educational announcements and discussions.

Syed Irfan Ashraf, the author of ‘The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan’, maintains there is a ‘digital apartheid’ in former FATA.

“The fact remains that internet services in ex-Fata are still considered a ‘security risk’ and are, therefore, denied. And to impose this apartheid, an entire chain of deception is organised from the bottom up — all revolving around one principle: to give with one hand and take away with the other. This deception is the outcome of an official culture thriving on local deprivation as a legacy of colonial rule,” he notes.

In Pakistani society as well as in the world, the practice of “home office” started which is a very unique style of work. Like many third world countries, many Pakistani boys and girls are providing online services from home. Including online jobs, educational services, games preparation, software and website development, accuracy and checking work, translation of different languages, typing work, online advertising industry, software video training. The internet also offers personal work through shopping websites and also without local office, which has not only increased the income of Pakistanis, but also benefited the country.

“International human rights bodies have 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,” maintains Peshawar-based lawyer Irshad Ahmad.

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