Internet shutdowns have become chronic now

BY ANISHA SHETH| IN Media Freedom | 15/07/2017
Internet shutdowns have risen from eight in Jan-July 2016 to 23 in 2017, with the string of shutdowns almost unbroken since April,
finds ANISHA SHETH

 

A year after the United Nations passed a resolution condemning internet shutdowns, it appears India’s track record on banning internet services is worsening.

Not only is the number of bans rising but since April, internet services have been shut off in some part of India or the other, resulting in an almost continuous ban.

In the first half of 2016, authorities suspended internet services eight times. In the same period this year (up to July 10), different parts of the country have experienced different types of disruptions in internet connectivity 23 times, and nearly half of these were in Kashmir. According to Software Freedom Law Centre, there have been 31 shutdowns of internet services in 2016 and 14 in 2015.

Here’s a break-up of the states in which internet services were shut down completely or partially this year: Haryana (3), Jammu and Kashmir (10), Madhya Pradesh (1), Nagaland (1), Rajasthan (3), Uttar Pradesh (2), and West Bengal (3).

Since April, the string of shutdowns has been almost unbroken. Through April, May and June, there have been overlapping or contiguous bans in different parts of Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Rajasthan.

In almost every instance, either district administrations or police invoked the bans citing maintenance of law and order over one-off incidents, or multiple times over an issue that lasted prolonged periods. It appears that most shutdowns were ordered under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, but it was not always clear in all instances. Below is a summary of the bans that have been imposed across the country.


January

Although the ban in the Kashmir valley on data services on pre-paid mobile connections from December 2016 was not revoked until January, the first internet shutdowns ordered this year were in Nagaland and Haryana. At 8 pm on January 29, mobile internet services and SMS facilities were shut down across Nagaland, the state’s media reported. Under what sections of the law the ban was imposed is unclear. Government officials citied law and order maintenance in the wake of the impasse over women’s representation to the town and municipal councils, as the reason for shutting down data services. The ban was finally lifted on February 20.

On January 30, it was the turn of officials in Haryana. The Jhajjar district administration stopped all mobile internet services, voice calls, GPRS, SMS services and bulk messages indefinitely over the demand for reservations for Jats. When the ban was revoked is not known. The bans in Nagaland and Haryana continued in February.

February

On February 19, mobile internet was suspended in Rohtak, Bhiwani, Sonepat districts, the day the Akhil Bhartiya Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti (ABJASS) - which is spearheading the Jat agitation - was organizing a Balidan Diwas (sacrifice day) in Jasia village near Rohtak.

March

In March, the government had mobile internet suspended in Rohtak, Bhiwani, Sonipat and Jhajjar districts. The ban was imposed on March 17 as the All India Jat Aarakshan Sangharsh Samiti (AIJASS) planned to organize a march to Delhi on March 20. It is unclear when this ban was lifted.

April

In April, Udaipur in Rajasthan saw a three-day internet ban over Facebook posts and comments that allegedly caused religious offence. The Times of India quoted Udaipur Range IGP Anand Srivastav as saying that the ban was imposed to prevent verbal clashes online and curb rumours. Internet services were suspended between April 18 and 21.

From April onwards, Jammu and Kashmir saw multiple bans, including an unprecedented month-long ban on 22 social media sites. On April 9, authorities suspended all internet services – both mobile and broadband – in the valley over the violence that broke out during the by-polls to the Srinagar-Budgam constituency. The ban lasted until April 13. However, some news reports say that the ban was lifted between April 10 and 13.

On April 17, high speed mobile internet was shut down as students in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district took to the streets. Thousands of students protested the assault on students of a Pulwama college by military personnel on April 15. Services were restored on April 29.

On April 25, the state Home Department invoked the Indian Telegraph Act to block 22 social media sites across the valley for a month. This is likely the first time that social media have been banned in the Kashmir valley. This ban was finally lifted on May 25.

The order, issued by Principal Secretary RK Goyal, read: “ .... In the interest of maintenance of public order, the government, in exercise of powers conferred by sub-section (2) of Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 read with the Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules 2007, hereby direct all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that any message or class of messages to or from any person or class of persons relating to any subject or any pictorial content through the following social networking sites  shall not be transmitted in the Kashmir valley for a period of one month or till further orders, whichever is earlier,”

The ban prompted criticism from David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and other UN experts.

"It appears that most shutdowns were ordered under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, but it was not always clear in all instances."

 

May

Through May, the Kashmir valley was denied social media access first, then internet connectivity. Towards the end of the month, Saharanpur had its internet shut off.

Between May 24 and June 4, internet services, messaging and social media remained inaccessible to people in the Saharanpur district, Uttar Pradesh. Authorities imposed the ban under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code after a Dalit man was murdered on May 24. This was the second murder of a Dalit man in two consecutive days in the district.

 

 

 

Just a day after social media sites were made accessible (on May 25), authorities suspended data services in the Kashmir valley on May 26 in the wake of the death of Sabzar Bhat, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, in an encounter with military personnel in Tral.  Even BSNL broadband services were affected in some parts of south Kashmir. Services were restored on June 2.

June

Internet bans ran almost simultaneously in five states in June: Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal. Just four days after mobile internet was restored in Saharanpur, authorities suspended it again when founder of the Bheem Army, Chandhrashekar, was arrested in Himachal Pradesh. Services which were suspended on June 8 were restored on June 12. 

On June 7, 3G and 4G data services were banned after 22-year-old student Adil Farooq Magray was killed in Shopian district. Only 2G services were functioning. It is unclear when this ban was lifted and whether it was limited only to Shopian district.

On June 16, mobile internet was banned over two separate incidents. Naseer Ahmed, a civilian was killed after being shot by military personnel in clashes in Srinagar. In Anantnag district too, authorities suspended 3G and 4G data services as an encounter with militants began. It is not known how long these shutdowns lasted.

In Rajasthan, mobile internet and bulk SMSes were suspended in Nagaur and Churu districts on June 30 as members of the Rajput community protested the killing of gangster Anandpal Singh in an encounter in Churu district on June 24. Police say they had data services suspended due to reports that social media was being used to spread rumours to disturb harmony. It is unclear if services have been restored.

Mandsaur, Ratlam and Neemuch districts of Madhya Pradesh too witnessed a disruption in internet connectivity for some days as the farmer agitation intensified. Authorities imposed a ban on June 6 and withdrew it on June 11.

June also saw the ban spread to West Bengal as authorities invoked the ban to curb protests in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts. The predominantly Nepali-speaking population in these districts are opposing the state government’s move to make Bengali mandatory in West Bengal schools. Soon, the protests began to voice a long-standing demand of the region’s people: for Gorkhaland, a separate state. Owing to this, the West Bengal government extended the ban in Darjeeling and Kalimpong several times and is likely to restore services only by this weekend.

July

Violence broke out on July 2 in Basirhat, North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, over a Facebook post that was allegedly offensive to religious sentiments. The state government had internet services shut down within hours. On July 10, as violence subsided, data services were restored.

Internet services were suspended on July 1 as an encounter broke out in BrenthiDialgam, Anantnag district, in which a civilian was killed. 

Ahead of the first death anniversary of Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, internet was suspended across the valley. The ban, which was in force from the night of July 6, lasted until July 9, when only 2G services were restored. The following day, on June 10, internet was suspended for about two hours before being restored again.

"The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment (and) fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression."

 

Condemnation

In July 2016, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning the use of internet disruptions, recognizing online connectivity and online media as an international human right. The resolution “Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”

However, Indian authorities continue to impose internet restrictions from time to time citing law and order concerns. The Hoot has previously reported that experiments show that cutting off access to social media and the internet during times of turmoil can actually lead to greater violence.

One instance where internet was not banned during a time of unrest and instead helped in maintaining calm, occurred last year. During the conflict between the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of water from the Cauvery river in September 2016, there was some amount of tension in Bengaluru as miscreants resorted to arson and vandalism in some parts of Bengaluru.

During this time, Kannada television channels reported shrilly, creating panic among people about their safety in the Karnataka capital. Bengaluru police however, effectively used Facebook and Twitter to spread calm, dispel rumours, and counter misinformation.

In Kashmir and Darjeeling however, the situation is not merely about law and order. In both places, there have been long-standing demands with regard to political freedom and autonomy.

"Internet shutdowns imposed in the Kashmir valley have a dual purpose."

 

The unprecedented ban on social media in the Kashmir valley drew condemnation from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In a media release, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders stressed that the scope of the restrictions undermined “the Government's stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence.”

They also said: “The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment (and) fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression.”

“Denying such access disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern,” added Mr. Forst. “We call on the Indian authorities to guarantee freedom of expression in Jammu and Kashmir and to seek a solution for the social and political conflicts of the region through an open, transparent and democratic dialogue,” the experts said.

A Srinagar-based Kashmiri journalist echoed the words and sentiments of the UN rapporteur in sharper detail. On condition of anonymity, he said that internet shutdowns imposed in the Kashmir valley have a dual purpose. One, to control what non-Kashmiris see about Kashmir. “It is not that human shields were not used before in Kashmir. But there were no mobile phones, no videos, before. Now there is video evidence. That’s why they want a complete ban on the internet.”

He continued: “Internet bans are aimed at stopping all flow of information from the ground in Kashmir. (Internet bans are imposed because they are) a flow of information that is not mediated by the Indian state.

Two, he said, it was to keep Kashmiris in different parts of the state cut-off from each other. “(With no internet connectivity), what happens in one village, stays in one village. They want each Kashmiri to be by himself. Each person knows only where they are. Not knowing (what others are doing). You are left only with yourself. (And) They don’t want you to know where they are.”

 

Anisha Sheth is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

 

 

 

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