Digital clampdown

Disproportionate imposition of curbs chokes free speech

Digital clampdown

The wall has been breached.’ This tweet said it all as several parts of Delhi witnessed an unprecedented Internet shutdown during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Phone calls and SMS services were also suspended, throwing life out of gear for lakhs of residents. Ironically, the public was made to suffer hardships in the ‘interest of public safety’. A similar clampdown was foisted on Mangaluru, where two persons were killed in police firing, and some cities of UP.

Citing law and order, the powers that be have been making disproportionate use of authority to deprive people of the telecommunication lifeline. According to a UNESCO report, citizens of South Asian countries experienced at least 97 instances of Internet shutdown between May 2017 and April 2018, including 82 cases in India alone. The South Asia Press Freedom Report observed that Net shutdown and deliberate slowdown were increasing across the world, with the subcontinent faring the worst. However, the efficacy of these curbs is debatable. In August 2017, Haryana, Chandigarh and Punjab were digitally cut off ahead of (and after) the verdict in a rape case against Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Despite the preventive measure, around 40 persons died in violence that broke out after the sect chief was convicted.

The digital gag, especially if it’s enforced without substantial provocation, is an infringement of the citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression. The law-enforcement agencies should try to counter misinformation and fake news by reaching out to the people through various channels. Repressive measures show Indian democracy in a poor light and reek of authoritarianism. No wonder a Chinese news website has hailed the shutdown in India as a ‘necessary regulation’ and a ‘reasonable choice based on national interests’. China has itself been blocking the Net in its troubled Xinjian region over the years, including a period lasting over 300 days in 2009-10. With the anti-CAA fire spreading fast, the Indian authorities need to realise that the excessive use of force is only worsening the tense situation. Clampdown and crackdown ought to be the last resort, not the first.

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