News analysis |
People in South Asian countries experienced at least 97 instances of Internet shutdown, a barometer on freedom of press and expression, between May 2017 and April 2018, with India alone accounting for 82 such cases, according to a UNESCO report. According to the Clampdowns and Courage-South Asia Press Freedom Report, 2017-18, released recently by the UNESCO-International Federation of Journalists, Pakistan witnessed 12 instances of Internet shutdown, while Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka reported one such case each.
“Internet shutdown and deliberate slowdowns are increasing the world over and are now also a barometer on press freedom and freedom of expression controls. South Asia has witnessed the highest number of Internet shutdowns globally, with India earning the dubious crown for the country with the highest number of Internet shutdowns,” the report said.
It said Internet shutdowns are “any intentional disruption of the broadband or mobile Internet or Internet-based mobile apps, by an order of the authorities or threat of non-state party, to control communication or online content or slowing down the access to the general public.”
The social media giant said in its latest Government Requests Report that India ordered 719 pieces of content to be restricted, lower only than Brazil, Turkey, and Germany.
In most cases, the justification given for Internet shutdown was to “maintain law and order”, while many shutdowns were either preemptive or reactive measures in the face of mass or potential violent public protests, it said. In India, Kashmir Valley experienced nearly half of the cases of Internet shutdown in the country. Clamping down on communication generally followed military operations in which militant or civilians were killed, the report said.
Over 10 instances of the Internet being affected were witnessed in Rajasthan, while Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, and Haryana were among states in which less than 10 cases of Internet shutdown were recorded, according to the report. In the six biggest instances of Internet shutdown, India accounted for five of them while one was experienced in Afghanistan. It said in Darjeeling in West Bengal, a 45-day Internet shutdown was ordered due to the political demonstration, protest, and clashes by activists seeking a separate state.
Similarly, a 40-day Internet shutdown was witnessed in Nawada in Bihar after communal clashes, while mobile Internet and social media were affected for 31 days in Jammu and Kashmir to prevent circulation of videos and photos showing military abuse by India, the report said.
Mobile and broadband Internet were suspended for 15 days in Jammu and Kashmir in July last year after unknown gunmen opened fire on a bus full of pilgrims, while SMS and mobile Internet services were suspended in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh for 12 days to stop rumors following violent communal clashes, according to the report.
It said in Darjeeling in West Bengal, a 45-day Internet shutdown was ordered due to the political demonstration, protest, and clashes by activists seeking a separate state.
The Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority had directed Internet service providers to block telegram and WhatsApp services for 20 days. However, it was not fully implemented, the report said. The report said apart from causing massive economic losses, they also create adverse social impacts in access to vital information and affect crisis communication by general citizens.
“Slowdowns also impede the work of journalists in critical ways. When the Internet is blocked or slowed or social media is shut down, a valuable journalism tool is lost for research, verification and essential communication,” it noted. Internet shutdowns prevent journalists from freely accessing information and disseminating news and also stop citizens from accessing and sharing information, the report said.
“They pose threat to human rights and block the people’s rights to know, and have emerged as a significant tool of censorship by the government which is increasingly utilizing shutdowns and under the guise of security,” it added.
India, which is often referred to as the world’s largest democracy, has been called out for online censorship before. A 2016 survey of internet freedom in 65 countries by U.S.-based think tank Freedom House gave India a score of 41. China, with a score of 88, came last. Estonia performed best with a score of 6.
In another report by the Brookings Institution last year, India tied for first place with Iraq for the highest number of internet shutdowns among 19 countries (including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria and North Korea). Facebook also ranks the Indian government among the top countries asking it to censor content. The social media giant said in its latest Government Requests Report that India ordered 719 pieces of content to be restricted, lower only than Brazil, Turkey, and Germany. India topped Facebook’s list for two straight years up to June 2015.
Many attribute the rise in this censorship to the ascendance of the Hindutva ideology through the RSS in India. Many experts assert that at its core while aspiring to democracy Hindutva is a fascist ideology that seeks to drown out dissent through a deadly cocktail of religious extremism and ultra-nationalism.