ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has restored access to multiple social media apps which it temporarily blocked on security grounds on Friday, the country’s telecommunications authority said.
The suspension of social media services was part of a crackdown against a religious political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), that held violent nationwide protests this week.
Pakistani internet users had difficulty accessing apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter starting on Friday morning.
“Access to social media applications have been restored,” Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said in a statement on Friday afternoon.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad has since apologized for the suspension of social media services.
“I as interior minister apologize that we blocked social media for three hours,” he said in a video statement.
“They (TLP) were planning to come out on the streets after Friday prayer. We will not do this in the future. They did not come out. It was all peaceful. Today those who wanted to spread chaos, anarchy and terrorism in the country through social media have been defeated.”
The internet blockade came as Pakistan said this week it would outlaw the TLP after the arrest of its leader, Saad Rizvi, on Monday sparked major nationwide protests.
“We have banned them (TLP), will go for their dissolution, freeze their bank accounts, cancel their passports, block their identity cards and will not allow terrorism in the country at any cost,” Ahmed said.
Rizvi and his supporters are calling on the government to expel the French ambassador over cartoons published in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Anti-French sentiment has been building for months in Pakistan since French President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for Charlie Hebdo’s right to republish the cartoons, deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
On Thursday, the French embassy in Pakistan advised all French nationals and companies to temporarily leave the country amid the violent anti-France protests.
Meanwhile, the country’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) said it had “initiated action against individuals who used social media to incite violence, spread hate and glorified the assaults on law enforcement personnel.”
According to the CTD statement: “A list of TLP-related social media accounts have been identified and a complaint lodged with the Federal Investigation Agency cybercrime wing.”
Earlier in the day, PTA spokesperson Khurram Mehran told Arab News that the suspension of social media apps was “in order to maintain public order and safety.”
Internet, cable TV and phone service provider Nayatel, based in Islamabad, sent text messages to users saying: “On directions by PTA, below mentioned social media platforms have been blocked. Twitter. Facebook. WhatsApp. YouTube. TikTok. Telegram. Inconvenience is regretted.”
Usama Khilji, a director at the digital advocacy group Bolo Bhi, said the suspension was “against the constitution to suspend people’s access to information by blocking social media just because of a group and in the name of law and order.
“Also, this is not a wise security strategy to suspend the internet because this will not send protesters home. Instead, it will project a bad image of our country abroad,” he told Arab News.
Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation said: “What kind of national emergency are we dealing with that the government had to temporarily ban social media? These arbitrary decisions of blocking and banning have never done any good except opening up ways to blanket bans.”