Raising alarm over the impact of internet and social media restrictions imposed by authorities in Kashmir, United Nations human rights experts have called on the Government of India to protect the right to freedom of expression and to pursue an open and democratic dialogue to address the region’s social and political conflicts.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, said in a statement issued in Geneva that the ban had “disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir” and had the “character of collective punishment.”
Such restrictions “fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression,” Kaye wrote.
Authorities in Kashmir late last month banned 22 social media sites, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, and 3G and 4G cell phone data services for one month in an effort to calm tensions after videos depicting the abuse of Kashmiris by Indian forces fuelled widespread protests.
The government said the one-month ban was necessary for public safety because anti-India activists were misusing social media.
Forst said such blocking “disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern.”
“The scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir, undermining the government’s stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence,” the UN human rights experts said.
The experts noted that in 2016 the Human Rights Council, the central human rights body in the UN system, condemned such online disruptions and called upon states to avoid such shutdowns.
Indian telecom engineers struggled for at least three days to block the social media sites after the ban was imposed on April 26, drawing rebuke from Kashmiris. Once in place, the ban has had little impact on the ground as many Kashmiris have continued using the banned sites and chat applications through proxy servers.
Protests and clashes are an almost daily occurrence in Indian-administered Kashmir, where anti-India sentiment runs deep among the mostly Muslim population after decades of armed rebellion and military crackdowns.
Kashmiris have been uploading videos and photos of alleged abuse for some years, but several recently posted clips, captured in the days surrounding a violence-plagued local election on April 9, have proven to be especially powerful and have helped to intensify anti-India protests. Police and paramilitary officials accuse agitators of using social media to instigate violence.
The UN special rapporteurs said there were at least 31 reported cases of social media and internet bans since 2012 in Kashmir and called it “a worrying pattern aimed at curbing protests and social unrest in the region.”
The two called on Indian authorities to guarantee freedom of expression in Kashmir and “to seek a solution for the social and political conflicts of the region through an open, transparent and democratic dialogue.”
Last year, US think tank the Brookings Institution in a report said that India blocked access to the internet in various regions to prevent demonstrations 22 times in the 12 months starting in July 2015, more often than Syria, Pakistan and Turkey did put together.
Mir Suhail is a Srinagar based journalist