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Kashmir: Communications blockade exacerbates the human rights crisis

Newspaper bans, Facebook takedowns and clampdowns on internet and telecommunications services are making it harder for people to access information, express dissent and maintain contact with friends and family during a very turbulent time.

Local journalists hold placards during a protest in Srinagar, India, 19 July 2016
Local journalists hold placards during a protest in Srinagar, India, 19 July 2016

AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

The Indian-administered part of Kashmir has been in the grips of mass protests that erupted across the Himalayan region following the killing of a commander of a militant secessionist group in a firefight with Indian security forces on 8 July. While thousands initially came out to join the last rites of Burhan Wani, protests soon broke out calling for azadi (independence) from India.

The protests, which have included throwing stones, met with a heavy handed response from security forces, with around 50 deaths reported since the protests started. There have been reports of several human rights violations due to excessive use of force by security forces and attacks on ambulances and medical facilities. The political and human rights crisis in Kashmir has undoubtedly deepened.

However, what has exacerbated this crisis is the de-facto information and communications emergency that has been arbitrarily imposed in Kashmir. Authorities in Kashmir have indiscriminately clamped down on internet and telecommunications services, making it harder for people to access information, express dissent and maintain contact with friends and family during a very turbulent time.

Press emergency

Though Kashmir is all too familiar with having its internet and telecommunication services arbitrarily suspended whenever protests get out of hand, what shocked even the most hardened cynics on this occasion was a 3-day ban on printing newspapers between 18 and 20 July. While the Kashmiri media has had to contend with huge challenges since 1990 when an armed rebellion broke out against Indian rule, this is the first time that Kashmiri media has been officially censored. This 3-day gag order was preceded by raids on Kashmiri newspapers where printing presses were shut down.

The printing ban was a significant setback to human rights in the region already suffering from suspended internet and phone networks since 9 July. With a lack of access to television, internet or communication links with the outside world, local newspapers were the main source of information for people in Kashmir. With violent protests, brutal police crackdowns and a crippling curfew in place, people in Kashmir were being denied the freedom to access information to stay safe and carry on their lives.

The printing ban was ostensibly in response to the Kashmiri media's critical reporting of the post-9 July events. A government spokesperson justified the move as an “undesirable step taken to ensure peace”.

The newspaper gag order evoked strong criticism from much of the media fraternity in Kashmir and other parts of India. Journalists across India and other parts of the world unequivocally criticized the move as a blatant attack on media freedom. In response to the unprecedented criticism, state and federal authorities started passing the buck on who was to be blamed. Remarkably, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti claimed that she had no idea of the ban, and transferred a senior police official as punishment for imposing it. Kashmiri newspapers decided to hold off printing for a fourth day to protest the government's “propaganda blitzkrieg that there was no ban".

This lack of accountability as to who ordered the newspaper ban exemplifies the impunity for clamping down on free speech in Kashmir. It has become standard operating procedure for authorities in Kashmir to suspend internet and telecommunication lines whenever they feel they want to contain protests or criticisms. And they routinely justify such actions using the 'national security' argument. This lack of respect for freedom of expression is shocking in a country that prides itself to be the world's largest democracy.

Facebook censors Kashmir posts

As in most conflict areas around the world, social media has become an important tool to express dissent and counter-narratives in Kashmir. This medium along with independent blogs and online publications is an important platform for discussions and also an important source of information. And among the various social media platforms, Facebook is the most popular, as it also serves as a communication network when phone lines are down.

However, Facebook has come under severe criticism for allegedly censoring posts of academics, journalists, media organizations and common citizens about the ongoing Kashmir crisis. There have been complaints that people found their posts deleted without any warning or substantial explanation. Some even had their Facebook accounts deleted after posting about events in Kashmir.

Those reporting such censoring have all been people either posting material related to the killing of Burhan Wani, or those critical of the Indian rule in Kashmir, including the heavy-handed response of the security forces to the recent protests. Facebook sent some of them messages saying that their posts were removed “for violating community standards” or were “unsuitable”. However, the source of these complaints has not been explained. Activists have initiated a petition asking Facebook to respect the United States Bill of Rights and stop censoring posts on Kashmir.

Violation of international standards

In a joint declaration on freedom of expression and responses to conflict, the UN Special Rapporteur and other global human rights experts stressed that there can be no justification under international human rights standards to shut down entire parts of communications systems as has been done in Kashmir.

The experts also pointed out that “any restriction on freedom of expression must meet the three-part test under international human rights law, namely that it is provided for by law, it serves to protect a legitimate interest recognised under international law and it is necessary to protect that interest.”

It is hard to see how the communications blockade of Kashmir meets any of these criterions.

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