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Pakistan briefly blocks social media access after anti-French protests

Pakistan has briefly blocked access to all social media platforms, after days of anti-French protests.

In a notice to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the interior ministry said it would restrict all social network and messaging platforms for 4 hours on Friday.

The ministry said the measure was taken “to maintain public order and safety” and gave no further details.

Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok, and Telegram were all restricted from 11:00 to 15:00 local time. Telecom operators initially said no fixed timeline had been given to restore the data.

As a result, the hashtags #SocialMediaBanInPakistan and #blocked were widely shared in the country, before access to social media apps were restored.

The block comes just one day after the French embassy in Pakistan advised French nationals and companies to temporarily leave the country because of “serious threats” to French interests.

Violent protests have taken place in Lahore and Karachi – Pakistan’s two largest cities – in recent days, as well as in the northern capital Islamabad.

Demonstrations have been instigated by a radical Islamist party, who are demanding that the country’s French ambassador be expelled.

Anti-French sentiments have been heightened in Pakistan since France’s President Emmanuel Macron defended cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the name of freedom of expression.

Islam strictly forbids any depiction of Mohammed and Macron’s comments previously led to calls to boycott French products in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

Security has been tightened at the French embassy in Islamabad, as police officials prepared to clear large demonstrations on Friday, organised by supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party (TLP).

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has tried unsuccessfully for several years to control the TLP, which has repeatedly blocked large parts of the country.

Khan tweeted that four police officers had been killed and more than 600 others injured in the violence.

“I want to pay special tribute to our police force for their heroic stand against organised violence intended to create chaos to blackmail [the] government,” he added.

Three demonstrators have also died in the clashes with security agencies.

On Wednesday, Pakistan declared that the party would now be banned, calling it a terrorist group and detained leader Saad Rizvi.

The government later released a handwritten letter, claimed to be from Rizvi, urging his supporters to stand down in an effort to calm tensions.

The decision to block social media may have intended to prevent online calls for further demonstrations after Rizvi’s arrest.

Political parties frequently use social networks to mobilise activists and Friday’s rallies were due to take place after Friday prayers, which draw large crowds to mosques.

The Pakistani authorities regularly cut off mobile phone service and block social networks to prevent mass protests.

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