The Ministry of Interior on Friday directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to temporarily block access to social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram — from 11am to 3pm.
"It is requested that immediate action may be taken on the subject matter," the ministry directed the PTA chairman.
Shortly after, the PTA released an official statement saying: "In order to maintain public order and safety, access to certain social media applications has been restricted temporarily."
Following the interior ministry's directives, Nayatel — an internet service provider — said in a message to its customers that social media platforms had been blocked on the directions of the PTA.
These platforms include Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok and Telegram. "The inconvenience is regretted," it said.
After 3pm, users reported that the social media platforms had been partially restored.
The PTA too issued a statement saying "access to social media applications has been restored."
Although the notification issued by the interior ministry did not mention a reason for the suspension, the development comes after several days of unrest in the country due to protests by the recently proscribed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
In a video message, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid apologised to the public for the hours-long blockage of the applications, saying the government will "try not to [restrict] social media in the future".
He said the social media platforms were blocked because the TLP had issued a call to its activists to come out on the streets for protests after Friday prayers.
The minister said due to the government's efforts, "the terrorists, agitators and those spreading unrest through social media have been defeated".
Detained TLP chief Saad Rizvi, in a purported handwritten note shared by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Political Communication Shahbaz Gill late on Thursday, had urged his followers to maintain law and order and avoid blocking roads and highways.
In the letter, Rizvi had asked TLP supporters to peacefully go back to their homes and cooperate with law enforcement agencies.
However, some TLP supporters insisted they hear or see the words come from Rizvi himself before stopping.
Meanwhile, some rights activists criticised Friday's social media blackout, warning it could lead to more severe curbs on freedoms.
“These arbitrary decisions of blocking and banning have never done any good (and) instead opened ways to blanket bans,” said Nighat Dad, head of the Digital Rights Foundation on Twitter, shortly before the site became inaccessible.
Also on Friday, Sindh Police’s Counter-Terrorism Department initiated action against social media accounts allegedly operated by supporters and workers of the TLP, according to CTD Sindh chief Omar Shahid Hamid.
He said the action was being taken over a host of charges. “The CTD has initiated action against individuals who used social media to incite violence, spread hate and glorify the assaults on law enforcement personnel,” Hamid added.
He revealed that a list of TLP-related social media accounts had been identified and a complaint had been lodged with the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing.
The CTD in its request to FIA said anti-state and hate speech material was being uploaded by TLP followers on social media platforms "creating provocations and chaos across the country".
Government bans TLP under anti-terrorism law
On Thursday, the government had slapped a ban on the TLP. A notification declaring TLP as a proscribed organisation was issued by the Ministry of Interior shortly after the federal cabinet approved a summary to ban the party.
The notification said: “The federal government has reasonable grounds to believe that the TLP is engaged in terrorism, [has] acted in a manner prejudicial to the peace and security of the country, [was] involved in creating anarchy in the country by intimidating the public, caused grievous bodily harm, hurt and death to the personnel of law enforcement agencies and innocent by-standers, attacked civilians and officials, created wide-scale hurdles, threatened, abused and promoted hatred, vandalised and ransacked public and government properties including vehicles and caused arson, blocked essential health supplies to hospitals, and has threatened, coerced, intimidated, and overawed the government [and] the public and created sense of fear and insecurity in the society and the public at large."
Copies of the notification were sent to authorities concerned, including the secretaries of different ministries and divisions, State Bank governor, Election Commission of Pakistan secretary and director general passports.
The National Counter Terrorism Authority had also swiftly added the TLP to the list of banned terrorist organisations taking the total number of such outfits to 79.
In an effort to keep the ulema in the loop, the religious affairs minister had also hosted an Iftar-dinner in the honour of religious scholars where Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had briefed them on the reasons for banning the TLP.
With additional reporting by Javed Hussain in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Karachi.