The regulator of Afghanistan has claimed its temporary suspension of the messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram was in order to improve their performance rather than impede free speech.
Acting telecoms minister Shahzad Aryobee used Facebook to claim that the government considered freedom of speech to be “a basic civil right for our people”, but noted that “it [was] essential” to block the apps for a period in order to test their systems and improve their functionality.
The Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority wrote on 1st November to internet firms requesting that they suspend Telegram and WhatsApp “without delay” for a period of twenty days. It has been alleged that the National Directorate for Security ordered the block as a means of shutting down end-to-end encrypted messaging by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
However, while there has been a furious response from both civil rights groups and users of the messaging apps, several reports have claimed that the services are still functional. While WhatsApp apparently experienced erratic service on 3rd November, this was not limited to Afghanistan, with users in several countries reporting interruptions.
In Afghanistan, social media is widely used by politicians as well as insurgent organisations such as the Taliban, with Facebook Messenger, Viber and WhatsApp particularly prominent. One of the Taliban’s key spokesmen Zabiullah Mujahid reportedly gave out his Viber number to members of the press “in case WhatsApp is not working”.
Both services have been pressured by governments in the past to block content related to religious radicalism and terrorism. In August, Telegram faced a ban in Indonesia on these grounds, but following a meeting with the company’s founder Pavel Durov the country’s government decided against such an action.