Pakistan blocks social media platforms amid protest crackdown | News | DW | 16.04.2021

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Pakistan blocks social media platforms amid protest crackdown

Sites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will be unavailable until Friday afternoon in the country. The move comes amid fears that a radical group could use social media to perpetuate violent protests.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party shout slogans

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party protest against the arrest of their leader

Pakistan placed a temporary ban on several social media websites on Friday.

Platforms that will be unavailable include Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube and Telegram.

The Interior Ministry directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block the platforms until 3 p.m. (11:00 GMT).

"Social media has been blocked for a few hours so that troublemakers can not use it during Friday prayers congregations," an official told dpa.

Why exactly has social media been blocked in Pakistan?

The block comes amid fears that activists belonging to the radical Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) group might use the technology to perpetuate violent protests that have shaken the country this week.

At least five people including two police officers have been killed, and nearly 600 injured. Around 200 of those are in critical condition.

The TLP has also been agitating against the arrest of its leader, Saad Rizvi, who initially called for the rallies.

Political parties, Islamist groups and militant organizations in Pakistan rely heavily on social media platforms to connect with their followers.

Experts slam 'unconstitutional' move

The block drew widespread criticism from officials and human rights advocates. "This ban is against the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution," Dr. Mehdi Hassan, the ex-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told DW. "Instead of putting a ban on social media, the government should arrest all the top leadership of the extreme outfit [TLP] and prosecute them in the court of law."

Islamabad-based analyst Amir Hussain echoed those sentiments, adding that the ban on social media could have wide-reaching consequences on millions of people and businesses, many of whom have become dependent on social media to earn an income.

"Imagine the ways Uber drivers would be affected. Think of the women who are working at home and marketing their businesses through social media," Hussain told DW, adding that thousands of Pakistanis living abroad also use social media to conduct phone calls, and will be cut off from their main lines of communication.

He called on the government to alternatively "change state policy, put an end to hate materials, and take action against those who use religion for political purposes."

Some analysts, however, have praised the ban. "The ban is a wise decision," Afzal Ali Shigri, a prominent security expert and former inspector general of police, told DW. Without a social media ban, he said, TLP supporters could use the platforms to upload fake videos to inspire further unrest. 

"It is a prudent decision but I hope that this decision will be for a short time," Shigri added.

TLP supportes burn pictures of French President Macron over the publication of caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad

TLP supportes launched protests over the publication of caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad

What is the dispute with France about?

The TLP has been organizing rallies to denounce the publication of cartoons in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad. 

The demonstrations prompted the French Embassy in Pakistan to urge its nationals to leave the country temporarily.

Extra security personnel have been deployed to the French embassy, and additional shipping containers placed as fortifications around its outer wall. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has struggled to get TLP protests under control in recent years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group.  

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

In the most recent protests, demonstrators blocked roads and streets, demanding that the government fulfill an earlier promise to expel the French ambassador by April 20.

French exports in the Muslim world

lc/rt (Reuters, AFP, dpa)