Image Credit: AFP
Digital communication platforms, such as Twitter, have become a primary source of information. This has extended the access to the internet as a basic human right, and was endorsed as such by the United Nations under Article 19.
But what happens when this access is deliberately restricted for a certain group of people?
Such is the ongoing network shutdown in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) that was imposed by the BJP-led Indian government on August 4, 2019 after repealing Article 370 of the Indian constitution that gave the region of Kashmir special status and autonomy. While this shutdown is 55th in the region in 2019, this particular network blackout is not restricted to two-way communication like the internet and landline phones, but extends to one-way information platforms like TV and radio, and confirms the unreasonable efforts of the Indian government to restrict the flow of information in and out of J&K.
This media shutdown has created a sense of uncertainty and fear among people who don’t want to be the victim of disproportionate atrocities by the authorities.Nighat Dad
The atrocities inflicted on Kashmiris are already a serious violation of their fundamental human rights. This complete communication blackout though not only attacks the people in the valley but also paralyses their ability to connect and communicate on a daily basis with their friends and family, and restricts them from ensuring the safety of people in the region.
Nighat Dad, the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation, says, “The violence that we’re witnessing in Kashmir is multi-fold because it does not only affect those who are experiencing it first hand, but also those who want to ensure that their relatives are safe. This media shutdown has created a sense of uncertainty and fear among people who don’t want to be the victim of disproportionate atrocities by the authorities.”
In times of crisis like the one that Kashmir and its citizens are witnessing since the past month, blocking communication and information channels only increases the already escalating violence and chaos on-ground. The lack of credible information leaves people in and out of the area to assume and interpret the situation on their own.
The lack of credible information leaves people in and out of the area to assume and interpret the situation on their own.
Alp Toker, the founder of NetBlocks – a civil society group working at the intersection of digital rights, cyber-security and internet governance, says, “Technical data show extensive restrictions on internet access and telecommunication in and around Srinagar at a time when residents most need to be informed and civically engaged. Internet shutdowns have been been shown to fuel unrest and disinformation as well as causing lasting damage to economic sustainability and are likely only to add to troubles in the region.”
However, Kashmir’s situation is unique and one that we haven’t seen happening anywhere in modern history. While the Indian administration constantly rejected the news of violence in Kashmir, despite credible news outlets presenting facts collected from the ground and sharing them online. The Indian administration furthered the crackdown on the information by reporting this news as false to social media platforms resulting in at least 200 Twitter accounts from Pakistan to be suspended.
Nighat says, “The attempt of Indian government to silence opposing narratives and news not only in India but also from the international community, is a testament to the fact that Indian authorities are in a state of panic and don’t want to be criticised or held accountable for their atrocities.” She adds, “This is not an unusual pattern, in fact, we have seen it happening in most authoritarian regimes where their target is the freedom of expression of the people, although very unfitting for the largest democracy in the world.”
A coalition of 66 digital and human rights groups strongly condemned this communication blackout in J&K in a statement and called it “the blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression, access to information, movement and peaceful assembly.”
The statement further stated that, “We recognise that the current situation is not an aberration, it is rather part of a systematic effort by the BJP-led government to silence and exclude dissent from the region. The right to access communication networks is an important prerequisite to the exercise to other democratic and fundamental rights, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have been systematically denied these rights.”
Internet shutdowns have been been shown to fuel unrest and disinformation as well as causing lasting damage to economic sustainability and are likely only to add to troubles in the region.Alp Toker
The statement further demands transparency in content moderation from the social media companies who are often put under pressure by governments to comply with their notices so they can continue operating in the country. It also asks these companies to rise above the pressure and uphold democratic processes and not silence those who have been oppressed for decades.
The statement reads, “At a time when voices of people from the region are being systematically excluded, these suspensions and notices amount to gross negligence on the part of social media companies.”
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, rightly points out in her piece, “Blacking out communication channels is a form of collective punishment that cripples daily lives and economic activities.”
The statement by the coalition demands “that urgent and strict action be taken by the international community to address the international law violations. We demand that the blanket ban on communication network be lifted with immediate effect.”
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran