Pakistan's Punjab seeks social media ban on security concerns

By Mubasher Bukhari

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan's largest province of Punjab is proposing a ban on all social media platforms for six days due to security concerns during thousands of religious processions which start next week, its information minister Uzma Bukhari said on Friday.

The proposal relates to Muharram's Ashura processions, 10 days of mourning by minority Shi'ite Muslims. The event is the holiest in the Shi'ite calendar and commemorates the 7th century death of political and religious leader Hussain Ibn Ali.

Hussain was grandson of the Muslims' last Prophet Muhammad.

"It is a recommendation, and no decision has so far been taken," Bukhari told Reuters, adding that the government had received reports of some sectarian issues on social media which he said could "put the country on fire".

The measure is aimed at protecting the minority from sectarian violence, the provincial government wrote in a letter to Pakistan's interior ministry on Thursday.

The letter, which was seen by Reuters, said social media platforms such as "Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Tiktok be suspended across the province of Punjab ... in order to control hate material/misinformation".

The interior ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Pakistan has blocked access to X since its February election, which the interior ministry said in a court submission in April was due to national security concerns.

Civil and rights groups have criticised the ban as an attack on freedom of speech and access to information in a highly polarised country amid allegations of election fraud.

Jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party has said that the suspension of cell phone service on the election day followed by the X ban was an attempt to hurt his supporters, who rely heavily on social media.

A court is due to rule on the last of Khan's many convictions on July 12, the first day of the latest proposed ban. It was not clear whether the proposal is related to any likely threat of protests by his supporters.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Alexander Smith)