Khan’s party navigates Pakistan blackouts to keep campaign alive

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - RAWALPINDI (Pakistan), Feb 4 — Saad Sayeed and Rimal Farrukh Former prime minister Imran Khan’s party has redefined election campaigning in Pakistan with its social media rallies and use of AI technology in a bid to sidestep a nationwide crackdown that has followed it online.

Khan was jailed in the build-up to the campaign, while his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has been heavily restricted from campaigning for Thursday’s vote and banned from the television airwaves.

Censorship then followed as the party pushed its election campaign online.

“They can ban what they want, they can ban YouTube and TikTok, whatever they want but our vote is for Imran Khan,” 18-year-old Imran Aziz, a first-time voter, told AFP at a bustling electronics market in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

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Pakistani internet freedom watchdog Bytes 4 All recorded four hours-long social media shutdowns in January—cutting off access to TikTok, , Instagram and YouTube while Khan’s PTI live-streamed to its supporters.

The blackouts were blamed by the government on “technical difficulties”.

The party’s main website was also blocked in January and, within hours, a seemingly perfect duplicate appeared—except that it contained disinformation meant to confuse voters.

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The methods are not new, and were also used by Khan when he was in power, but activists say the scale of the crackdown is “unprecedented”.

“It challenges the democracy of a nation when you have the incumbents preventing the opposition’s ability to participate,” said Alp Toker, the director of global network monitor NetBlocks.

Websites removed

Khan says the campaign against him is an attempt by the government and military to keep him from returning to power after analysts say he fell out with the generals—Pakistan’s kingmakers.

PTI websites have been blocked, including an official portal listing its candidates nationwide.

A duplicate site with a slightly different web address appeared online hours later containing misleading candidate information, directing voters to cast ballots for representatives from other parties.

PTI activists told AFP they have had the fake site taken down but their own candidate webpage is still blocked.

It had already been severely hampered by a ban preventing the party from using its traditional election symbol of a cricket bat. Literacy rates hover around 60 percent in Pakistan, so parties use symbols to identify their candidates.

Despite the restrictions, PTI remains far ahead of its rivals when it comes to connecting online with Pakistan’s youthful population and tens of millions tune in to their live-streams.

They’ve also become the first party to use AI voice-cloning technology, releasing a fresh speech by Khan from behind bars.

“They have apps, they have online speeches, they’ve done a Tiktok jalsa (gathering) which is unprecedented, at least in Pakistan, so they have a way of innovating and it’s always been the case,” said Ramsha Jahangir, a technology journalist.

She said censorship efforts by the government have little impact on PTI’s popularity because the party is nimble enough to keep reaching its voters.

Bytes 4 All director Shahzad Ahmed agreed that, in a country with more than 70 million social media users and a median age under 21, such “shutdowns are counterproductive”.

“The youth is quick to adopt new technologies to circumvent such blockades,” he said, pointing to the use of virtual private networks (VPN).

‘Attack on freedom’

Independent candidates with scant resources who rely on social media to spread their message have also been hit hard.

Lawyer Jibran Nasir, who is running in the port city of Karachi, has taken the government to court over the social media shutdowns, saying it sets a “dangerous precedent” for the future and violates people’s constitutional rights.

“It is a direct attack on the freedom of expression of all Pakistanis regardless of what part of the political spectrum they belong to,” he told AFP.

“I primarily rely on social media because, given the inflation, it is virtually impossible to run a fully-fledged campaign within the budget limits.”

AFP spoke to two other independents who said their messaging was also affected.

Apart from the curbs on political freedom, the measures have seeped into the operations of online businesses in a country facing an economic crisis.

Rabia Farhan, who runs a baked good business on Instagram from her home in Islamabad, said the outages left her unable to connect with vendors at a time when millions of Pakistanis are struggling due to rampant inflation and currency devaluation.

“Everything was paused online until and unless we used physical resources,” she told AFP.

Saba Mushtaq, of ride-hailing and delivery service Bykea, said the company experienced “significant operational disruptions” affecting 100,000 commuters and 25,000 drivers.

IT trade association Pasha told AFP it was trying to get the government to ensure internet shutdowns do not knock out the tech sector by protecting certain websites.

The brazen attempts to shut down the party’s online presence only hardens the resolve of PTI supporters.

“They are imposing these restrictions but they cannot take (Khan) out of our hearts,” PTI supporter Malik Noman, 28, said. — ADP

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