Pakistan temporarily blocks social media over potential protests

Government orders hours-long shutdown of social media and instant messaging platforms after days of violent protests.

Some rights activists criticised Friday's social media blackout [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan has temporarily blocked Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and some other social media services across the country as part of a security crackdown on a far-right religious party, officials say.

The temporary ban blocked all access to social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and messaging apps Whatsapp and Telegram across the country starting at 11:00am local time (06:00 GMT) on Friday, an interior ministry official said.

“This was imposed in anticipation of [Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or TLP] protests and their penetration in the social media [is very high],” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said the “temporary ban” would be lifted at 3:00pm local time (10:00 GMT), although several areas continued to report outages past that time.

A second official familiar with the issue confirmed to Al Jazeera that the services had been blocked by the government, with the country’s telecommunications regulator saying the step had been taken “in order to maintain public order and safety”.

The far-right TLP has held days of violent protests against the arrest of its leader Saad Rizvi on Monday.

Clashes between police and protesters have left at least four policemen dead and more than 600 wounded, official said on Friday.

TLP supporters throw stones over a police armoured vehicle during a protest in Islamabad [File: Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

At their height, the protests saw major intercity highway closed and roads in major cities such as Karachi, the country’s largest city, the eastern city of Lahore and the capital Islamabad blocked.

Police fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters as they attempted to disperse them.

The protests had largely quelled by Thursday, but limited demonstrations continued in some areas. Authorities said they feared the TLP would launch large protests following midday congregational prayers on Friday.

A day earlier, the government formally banned the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation, with the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) adding it to Pakistan’s list of “proscribed organisations”.

Also on Thursday, the French government told citizens and French companies to leave Pakistan due to “serious threats” from the TLP protests.

In November, the TLP launched a days-long sit-in protest blocking a major highway into the capital Islamabad over remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that many, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, said “encouraged Islamophobia”.

Macron had defended publications’ right to reprint controversial caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, an act considered “blasphemous” by some Muslims.

Founded in 2017 by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP has campaigned on a one-point agenda of fighting perceived “blasphemy”, organising several mass protests across the country over its opposition to laws it considers blasphemous and the acquittal of a Christian woman of the crime of blasphemy.

The party holds three seats in the provincial assembly of the southern province of Sindh. On Thursday, the government said it would begin proceedings to have the party delisted by the Election Commission, potentially unseating those three lawmakers.

Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan and insulting the Quran, Islam’s Prophet Muhammad or Muslim holy personages can carry a mandatory death penalty.

Since 1990, at least 78 people have been murdered in connection with blasphemy allegations across Pakistan, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies