Pakistan orders temporary social media shutdown after violent protests

In a notice to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the Interior Ministry requested a "complete blocking" of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube and Telegram until 3 pm.

FILE: Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious party, shout slogans during an anti-France demonstration in Islamabad on 16 November 2020. Picture: AFP

ISLAMABAD – The Pakistan government on Friday ordered an hours-long shut down of social media and instant messaging platforms after days of violent anti-France protests.

In a notice to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the Interior Ministry requested a "complete blocking" of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube and Telegram until 3 pm (1100 GMT).

It gave no reason for the ban, but it comes a day after French nationals and companies in Pakistan were advised by their embassy to temporarily leave in the wake of the rallies led by an extremist party that paralysed large parts of the country and left two police officers dead.

Political parties frequently use social media to rally supporters and the announcement came just before Friday prayers, which usually draw huge crowds to mosques where firebrand sermons have in the past catalysed protests.

Pakistan authorities have used strategic social media bans and cuts to mobile service in the past in an attempt to head off major protests by preventing leaders from issuing mass calls for demonstrations.

Thousands of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) supporters spilled onto the streets on Monday after their leader was detained following his calls for the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Anti-French sentiment has been festering for months in Pakistan since President Emmanuel Macron threw his support behind a satirical magazine's right to republish cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed -- an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

EXTRA SECURITY

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has struggled to bring Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group, effectively labelling it a terrorist outfit.

Extra security personnel have been deployed to the French embassy - inside a guarded diplomatic enclave closed to the public - and shipping containers were placed as fortifications around its outer wall.

The protests have largely been cleared. But in Lahore, supporters continued a sit-in at a religious school - and TLP party headquarters - despite the circulation of a handwritten plea from leader Saad Rizvi to end the protests.

The TLP is notorious for holding days-long, violent road protests over blasphemy issues, causing major disruption to the country.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.

Francophobia erupted in autumn last year when the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Macron's subsequent defence of free speech triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighbouring Iran and other Muslim countries flooding the streets and organizing anti-French boycotts.

At the time, TLP supporters brought the capital Islamabad to a standstill.

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