Islamabad/Lahore: Pakistan on Friday temporarily suspended the services of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to stop their use to organise demonstrations following violent protests by a radical religious group that has now been banned by the government.
The government banned Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) on Thursday following three days of violent protest by it to force the government to expel the French ambassador over a blasphemous caricature published in France last year.
The TLP had launched the country-wide protest on Monday after the arrest of its chief Saad Hussain Rizvi.
To stop the protests after Friday prayers, the Interior Ministry directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to suspend social media services for four hours from 11 am to 3 pm.
The PTA said in a notification that “complete access to social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram) may be blocked”.
The reason for the suspension of the services was not stated by the PTA but official sources said that it was feared that protesters could use social media to organise demonstrations.
Suspension of internet and mobile phone services is a common practice in Pakistan to forestall protests and acts of terrorism.
But this time only social media has been particularly targeted as the TLP was reportedly using it effectively against the government action.
On Thursday, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed warned the TLP against using YouTube to upload propaganda videos.
Meanwhile, over 3,200 TLP supporters were arrested as the law enforcement agencies launched a final operation to clear the highways which remained blocked for the last four days in Punjab province.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said four policemen have been killed and over 600 injured in the four-day violent clashes.
“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. Four policemen were martyred and over 600 injured. Our nation is indebted to these heroes and we will look after the families of the martyrs,” Khan said in a tweet.
Earlier, the TLP protesters refused to vacate the main roads and highways in Lahore and other parts of province.
“In Lahore, Rangers and police launched an operation at main protest venue of the Islamists at Yateem Khana Chowk, which is the headquarters of the TLP and has the shrine of its founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The law enforcers faced strong resistance but they managed to clear it after arresting the TLP protesters,” a senior official of Punjab police told.
Punjab police spokesperson Rana Arif said that more than 3,200 workers and leaders or the TLP have been arrested in Punjab since clashes broke out between Islamists and law enforcers.
The TLP claimed that over a dozen of its activists have been killed in clashes and hundreds of them injured. The workers had blocked all major roads and highways in the country, mostly in Punjab, after the government arrested its chief Saad Rizvi.
For the last four days, Punjab remained a battlefield as fierce scuffles broke out between the police and the TLP activists.
“As many as 800 personnel of the Rangers and the police took part in the massive operation started at early hours of Friday against TLP protesters in Lahore with the support of logistics, including armoured vehicles and water cannons,” Lahore police chief Ghulam Mahmood Dogar said.
He said that the police carried out a house-to-house search in the adjoining localities of the protest venues.
The TLP came to prominence in November 2017 when it staged a sit-in at the Faizabad interchange near Islamabad and cut off the capital from the old international airport.
Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz (PML-N) was in the government then and Imran Khan, the current prime minister, and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party had supported the protest.