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Pakistan government cuts internet as voters head to polls during general election

Pakistani authorities cut internet access across the country on Thursday on security grounds as the nation’s voters went to cast their paper ballots.

Polls have now closed during the controversial election, which comes two years after former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted by a no-confidence vote in the country’s National Assembly.

Pakistan does not permit exit polling. Early results are not expected until late on Thursday, with a more representative picture of the election expected over the coming days.

Despite having 128.5 million registered voters, turnout at Pakistan’s general elections is regularly below 50% and media reports suggest turnout in this election will be particularly “dismal,” as one election official told Al Jazeera.

On the ballot are the country’s three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is considered the frontrunner, as well as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — the son of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari.

Officials say the internet blackout was necessary for security purposes. The country’s military announced that at least 12 people had been killed and 39 wounded in terrorist bomb attacks intended to disrupt the elections.

“As a result of the recent incidents of terrorism in the country, precious lives have been lost. Security measures are essential to maintain law and order situation and to deal with potential threats,” an Interior Ministry spokesperson said, as reported by BBC News.

The suspension of mobile services was criticized by opposition groups and international observers, including Access Now and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Completely shutting down access to mobile communications on voting day, of all days, is unacceptable,” said Felicia Anthonio, a campaign manager at Access Now.

“The people of Pakistan need internet access to ensure a free, fair, and inclusive election. Authorities’ decision to sever access to information discredits the integrity of Pakistan’s elections.”

Khan, who is currently imprisoned on corruption charges, is prohibited from standing in the election. He has alleged the country’s powerful military, whom he is considered to have fallen out with before his ousting, conspired with the United States to remove him from office.

Khan’s advisor Zulfi Bukhari described the internet shutdown as “a form of rigging,” as reported by Al Jazeera.

“When you wake up in the morning, you must message a certain number that tells you your polling station and the address,” he said, adding that voters were also dependent on ride-hailing services to get to their polling stations. “This was an obvious attempt to stop all that,” he argued.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.