Kinshasa - Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo plan to block social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp soon before President Joseph Kabila's mandate expires, four internet service providers said Thursday.
"The instructions of the government (are that) all social networks be blocked from 18:00 on Sunday December 18 until further notice," a representative of one ISP told AFP, asking not to be named.
Political tensions run high in the country, where Kabila's second and constitutionally final elected mandate ends on December 20, but no elections have been organised and the opposition accuses him of seeking to retain power.
Under a controversial ruling from the Constitutional Court, Kabila may remain in office beyond the end of his mandate.
ISP staff said they have not yet received a formal injunction from the authorities and have asked for detailed written notice of the move, which would hamper the organisation of public protests.
The government's plan was first raised on Tuesday at a meeting of the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (ARPTC).
"The ARPTC verbally instructed us during the meeting to filter connections on social networks," one ISP official said, adding that "trials are likely to be carried out overnight Thursday to Friday".
Kabila's failure to step aside has led to protests in which dozens have been killed, while the European Union on Monday imposed travel bans and asset freezes on seven top DRC security officials because of "a disproportionate use of force".
The president's foes have warned of nationwide protests from Monday until he quits office, but rallies are on hold while the Roman Catholic Church mediates last-ditch negotiations to bring about a political transition towards elections.
Blocking popular social networks would hinder the organisation of protests by the opposition after Kabila overruns his constitutional term, but one ISP operator said that messaging services could stay operational, but carry "no video, photos and voice via IP."
Tests would be carried out to see if the services can effectively be filtered and if not, ISPs would simply have to shut off all access to social media, the source said.
Since 2013, hundreds of people have lost their lives in politically motivated urban violence in Kinshasa and several other towns. Social networks mobilise protest because they are easy to use by telephone and charges are relatively low for the population of one of the world's poorest nations.
Questioned by AFP, Telecommunications Minister Thomas Luhaka responded by SMS that he was "not informed" of such measures, but one operator said ISPs had been warned they would lose their licences if they failed to comply.
During violent riots in January 2015, the authorities ordered a total 48-hour shutdown of the internet, but this completely paralysed the economy, notably because the banks could undertake no transactions.
"This time the authorities have learned the lesson," one operator said. "There won't be an internet blackout (causing) enormous harm in economic terms."