Pakistan: government orders temporary blocking of social networks

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Islamabad | The Pakistani government has ordered the blocking of social networks and instant messaging applications in the country for a few hours on Friday, the day of weekly prayer that gives rise to rallies, after days of violent anti-French protests.

In a notification sent to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the Home Office demands that it impose a “complete block” of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram until 3 p.m. local time (11 a.m. GMT).

The ministry gave no reason for this ban. But it comes the day after the recommendation made to French nationals and companies by the French Embassy in Pakistan to temporarily leave the country, because of the “serious threats” hanging over French interests there.

The announcement followed several days of violent protests in Lahore (east) and Karachi (south), the two largest Pakistani cities, as well as in the capital Islamabad (north), at the instigation of a radical Islamist party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), to demand the expulsion of the French Ambassador.

Political parties frequently use social networks to mobilize their activists. Authorities were concerned that the TLP would use Friday prayers, which draw large crowds to mosques, to stoke the discontent of its supporters.

TLP supporters reacted angrily to the arrest on Monday in Lahore of their leader Saad Rizvi, hours after he called for an April 20 march in Islamabad to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Anti-French sentiment has been heightened in Pakistan since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right to cartoon in the name of freedom of expression, during the tribute to a teacher killed on October 16 after showing satirical cartoons to his class, in the wake of the republication of representations of the Prophet Muhammad by the weekly “Charlie Hebdo”.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has tried unsuccessfully for several years to control the TLP, which has repeatedly blocked large parts of the country. But he announced on Wednesday that this extremist party would now be banned, calling it a terrorist group.

Security has been reinforced at the French embassy in Islamabad, an AFP journalist noted Thursday. Shipping containers were added along the outer wall of the compound to protect access and Rangers, a Pakistani paramilitary force, were deployed nearby.