On the evening of November 2, the Afghan social media space was abuzz with unverified reports of an order from the Afghan Telecom Regulatory Authority (ATRA), asking the mobile Internet service providers to block access to messaging applications WhatsApp and Telegram. While the official memo, a copy of which was seen by this writer, did not specify the reason for the proposal, it did mention that the ban would be for 20 days.
An ATRA official confirmed that the request was made on the behest of security services and stated that the reasons given were matters of “national security”. WhatsApp and Telegram are often used by Taliban and other insurgent groups to plan and execute operations in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the Taliban quickly called for switching to Viber, another popular messaging app in Afghanistan.
A day later, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a spokesperson of President Ashraf Ghani, took to social media to assure Afghans that the ban was not intended to curb their freedoms. “Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution and the Afghan government doesn’t have any agenda to censor any information,” he wrote. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Communication, Information and Technology released a statement that the request was to allow the Ministry to upgrade and implement better services.
The government move triggered angry responses from Afghans. Critics of the ban mobilised public opinion on Social networks. “Say #NoToCensorship in Afghanistan,” one Afghan tweeted. “Welcome to Dictatorship Kingdom of Afghanistan!” read another tweet.
Four days later, Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, issued a statement assuring the public that the ban would not take effect. “President Ghani and I have met and decided that there will be no ban on WhatsApp and Telegram in Afghanistan,” he stated on Tuesday. However, by then the damage had been done.
“It is understandable why the users would be furious over a possible WhatsApp ban,” explains Afghan IT expert Javid Hamdard. “Since the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan has witnessed an exponential growth in the telecom sector, driven largely by user demand.” Over the past decade, the number of Internet users in Afghanistan has risen significantly despite the conflict. There were at least 22 million mobile users and three million Internet users in the country as of 2014.
While the government may have revoked the proposed ban, Mr. Hamdard remains concerned with what the initiative represented. “The ability to be connected in Afghanistan is not just a luxury but also an imperative, largely because of the security concerns,” he says. “Anyone who gets out of their homes can’t be sure if they will return.” Social media applications can be a lifeline for the many Afghans who use it to navigate the the unstable security circumstances.
Notably, a relatively free media and unregulated platforms for communications are among the few post-war achievements of Afghanistan. “For a long time, Afghans were fed information only through state media channels, but after the explosion of social media, suddenly they found themselves connected to the global communication channels, which in many ways empowered the masses,” Mr. Hamdard he explains.
“This [attempt to block communication apps] could perhaps be a pretext for the government to see how far they can go if they may need to block certain services, as well as, if whether they can actually do it without furore,” he adds.
Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul