The Punjab government has requested the interior ministry to shut down social media apps on internet from Muharram 6 to 11 to control the dissemination of hate material and misinformation in a bid to avoid sectarian violence.

Sources close to the development said the provincial government had decided to go beyond the routine measures of internet suspension and mobile jamming over Ashura, after getting reports that ‘external forces’, including elements from across the border, were involved in the sharing of hate content and memes.

The Standing Committee of Cabinet on Law and Order (SCCLO) as well as the Punjab Home Department were of the opinion that shutting down internet was causing problems for the general public, while most misinformation and hate material was disseminated through social media apps, which could be used even when internet services remain suspended.

Following a meeting of the SCCLO on Thursday, the Home Department wrote a letter to the interior ministry’s secretary requesting that “social media platforms — Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, etc. — be suspended across the province from Muharram 6 to 11 to control hate material, misinformation and to avoid sectarian violence”.

Since the Punjab government has this time taken an out-of-box decision to curb activities aimed at sabotaging peace, the home department expected the interior ministry would respond promptly, so that peace is ensured during Muharram.

Sources told Dawn that the Punjab government had initially deliberated that social media apps be shut down on Muharram 9 and 10. However, the information explained that there were more factors than what was meeting the eye as there were reports of sharing of hate material and memes from cross-border as well as funding — allegedly to create a law and order. “Simple suspension of internet and mobile jamming may not work in the current circumstances,” a source close to the development told Dawn.

When contacted, Cabinet Minister Syed Ashiq Hussain Kirmani acknowledged that the cabinet committee had put forward a suggestion to close social media apps to avoid dissemination of hate content.

Mr Kirmani, who is also member of the SCCLO, said the meeting discussed that hate content increases manifolds on social media apps, particularly Facebook and X during Muharram, which eventually becomes a bone of contention between two sects instead of the two persons involved.

“Dissemination of hate content creates bad blood and spoils the overall environment particularly during Muharram,” he said and added that shutting down social media apps was recommended before, during and a day after Muharram.

Sensing the sensitivity of the situation, the SCCLO led by Health Minister Khawaja Salman Rafique agreed that social media apps be shut down from Muharram 6 to 11.

Besides, cases about the desecration of the Holy Quran were being reported almost on a daily basis in the province.

Video recordings

In yet another unprecedented move, the Punjab government decided that speeches by Zaakirs be digitally recorded and provided to the government.

The meeting — attended by four provincial ministers, home secretary, commissioners and RPOs — agreed that some zaakirs video-record their Muharram speeches for release on digital media platforms but this time every zaakir’s speech will be recorded and provided to the relevant police station.

“The standing committee of the cabinet for the first time instructed the administrations of all majalis across the province to compulsorily record the speeches and submit a digital copy of the speeches in relevant police stations,” a source told Dawn.

The home department has also asked the IG Police to suggest areas where internet suspension and mobile jamming is required.

Home Secretary Noorul Amin Mengal had earlier briefed the standing committee about the measures and SOPs finalised to ensure peace during Muharram.

The standing committee also issued instructions that all deputy commissioners would provide a list of persons within 24 hours who need to be banned from inter-district movement and gagged to prevent them from sabotaging peace during Muharram. Orders will also be issued to ban those speakers, who incite sectarianism.

The home department has also issued detailed SOPs for Muharram processions that would ensure that processions be carried out on approved routes under three-layer security cover.

Surveillance cameras will be installed at all procession routes for live coverage. It should be ensured that all the participants join the procession only through the allotted route after thorough checking.

The department also required that processions be taken out on time and concluded before the sunset.

Directions have also been issued that security cover should remain in place till the safe return of zuljinahs and tazias. Strict monitoring of sensitive places has already begun across the province, according to the SOPs.

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