Reports have emerged that once again phone and Internet services were shut down in Kashmir from the 5 August 2019, making this instance of government restrictions on internet services the 53rd shutdown in India since the start of 2019. These actions are incompatible with international standards on freedom of expression and ARTICLE 19 calls on the Indian Government to end the current shutdown immediately.
Faruq Faisel, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia, stated:
“ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about this blanket restriction on communication imposed by the Indian Government in Jammu and Kashmir. The shutdown is a clear violation of international freedom of expression standards in the country.
It is deeply alarming that in a period that sees us entering what many now describe as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), Kashmiri people have been refused a basic right to be able to communicate through the Internet and telephony. As elsewhere in the world, people in this region require access to the Internet to communicate online, access healthcare and stay safe and secure. The Indian Government must ensure this shutdown ends immediately and refrain from adopting such measures in the future.”
On 5 August 2019, in an unexpected move, the Indian Government revoked Article 370 of Indian Constitution that gave special status for Jammu and Kashmir. At the same time, the Indian Government cut off all Internet and mobile phone services in Kashmir. Broadband, mobile internet, text messaging and phone service have all been affected, with residents reduced to locating old radio sets in order to listen to the news.
In recent years, internet shutdowns have been frequent in Jammu and Kashmir. According to internetshutdowns.in, an internet access tracker, this is the 53rd time in 2019 alone that the Internet services were shut down in the region. In 2018, there were 65 shutdowns and more than 176 in the past eight years, including a six-month ban in 2016. This is on the top of strict telecommunication and Internet restrictions in India, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, where SIMs purchased in any part of India do not work in the region.
Applicable international standards
ARTICLE 19 recalls that human rights bodies have repeatedly affirmed that access to the means of communication falls under the protection of the right to freedom of expression.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), signed and ratified by India, requires the government to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Furthermore, in a landmark resolution adopted by consensus in 2012, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed the principle that the right to freedom of expression applies online as it does offline (A/HRC/20/13).
Any restriction on the right to freedom of expression and information must comply with the three-part test under Article 19(3) of the ICCPR and be:
• provided for by law
• pursue a legitimate aim; and
• be necessary and proportionate.
Therefore, although the right to freedom of expression and information may be restricted in order to protect inter alia public order and national security, the means used by the State to protect its people from terrorist threats must be proportionate to this aim.
ARTICLE 19 also recalls that the treaty monitoring body for the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee, affirmed in its General Comment No. 34 that “restrictions on the operation of websites, blogs or any other internet-based electronic or other such information dissemination system, including systems to support such communication … are only permissible to the extent that they are compatible with paragraph 3 [of paragraph 19 of the ICCPR].” Importantly, the Committee stated that “generic bans on the operation of certain sites and systems are not compatible with paragraph 3.”
Moreover, in his 2011 thematic report relating to the Internet (A/HRC/17/27), the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression emphasized that cutting users off from the Internet, regardless of the justification used, is a disproportionate restriction on the right to freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 therefore demands that the India Government ensures that the shutdown ends immediately and refrains from adopting such measures in the future. In addition, the government authorities must ensure that any measures introduced in Jammu and Kashmir fully comply with international human rights standards.