Afghanistan’s acting telecom minister said the country’s regulator was asked to block messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram to improve their functions rather than prevent free speech.

Shahzad Aryobee said “it is essential” to suspend the apps temporarily to test systems and improve their performance, but explained in a Facebook post the government remained committed “to freedom of speech” which it regards as “a basic civil right for our people”.

A letter by Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority dated 1 November asked internet companies to block Telegram and WhatsApp “without delay” for 20 days.

Some reports claim the move was ordered by the National Directorate for Security to crack down on the use of encrypted messaging by insurgent groups including the Taliban.

While social media users and civil rights groups reacted with outrage, reports state the services continue to work.

On 3 November there were reports of interruptions, but this may have been related to issues with WhatsApp services experienced in several countries.

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Viber are reportedly used in Afghanistan by politicians as well as by the Taliban, which has a social media operation of its own.

According to Reuters, the movement’s main spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, gave reporters his Viber number “in case WhatsApp is not working”.

In August 2017, the Indonesian government decided not to ban encrypted messaging service Telegram, after threatening to do so unless the app maker blocked unlawful content, particularly radical and terrorist propaganda.

Meanwhile WhatsApp is under pressure in the UK to give the government access to encrypted messages sent via the app because of the belief it is used by terrorists.