Decision taken to ‘maintain public order and safety’

Islamabad: The Pakistan government on Friday ordered an hours-long shutdown of social media and instant messaging platforms after days of violent anti-France protests.

It comes a day after French nationals and companies in Pakistan were advised by their embassy to temporarily leave in the wake of rallies led by an extremist party that paralysed large parts of the country and left two police officers dead. In a notice to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the Interior Ministry requested a "complete blocking" of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram until the middle of the afternoon.

The PTA said it was to "maintain public order and safety".

Political parties frequently use social media to rally supporters, and the announcement came just before Friday prayers, which usually draw huge crowds to mosques where firebrand sermons have in the past catalysed protests. Pakistan authorities have used strategic social media bans and cuts to mobile service in the past in an attempt to head off major protests.

Thousands of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) supporters spilled onto the streets in cities across the country on Monday after their leader was detained following his calls for the expulsion of the French ambassador.

More than 200 were arrested during days of clashes that followed, police sources told AFP.

The social media ban affected many Pakistanis already suffering from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the north-western city of Peshawar, Eqtedar Ahmad told AFP his work as a doctor at a private hospital had been disrupted.

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Protests had been cleared from most cities by Friday, but in Lahore hundreds of TLP supporters continued a sit-in at a religious school - and party headquarters - despite the circulation of a handwritten plea from leader Saad Rizvi to leave the streets.

Anti-French sentiment has been festering for months in Pakistan since President Emmanuel Macron threw his support behind a satirical magazine's right to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) - an act deemed blasphemous by Muslims. Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has struggled to bring TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group, effectively labelling it a terrorist outfit. The TLP is notorious for holding days-long, violent road protests over blasphemy issues, causing major disruption to the country. Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.

Francophobia erupted in autumn last year when the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Macron's subsequent defence of free speech triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighbouring Iran and other Muslim countries flooding the streets and organising anti-French boycotts.

At the time, TLP supporters brought the capital Islamabad to a standstill.

Extra security personnel have been deployed to the French embassy - inside a guarded diplomatic enclave closed to the public - and shipping containers were placed as fortifications around its outer wall.