Kashmir Times’ executive editor Anuradha Bhasin has petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking direction to the Centre and officials of Jammu & Kashmir, to immediately relax restrictions on internet, mobile, landline services in Kashmir and parts of Jammu. It also asks for restrictions on free movement of journalists and media persons to be relaxed. These restrictions have led to a “virtual blackout” and has disabled media, says the petition (accessed from LiveLaw).

Internet, mobile, and landline services have been suspended in Kashmir since August 4, leaving Kashmir and parts of Jammu “completely isolated and cut off from communication”. No formal orders were given, says the petition filed on August 10, and “the authority, under which such excessive and arbitrary action was ordered is still unknown to the Petitioner”. The petitioner is represented by lawyers Vrinda Grover, Soutik Banerjee, and was filed through Sumita Hazarika, advocate on record.

The Union ministry of Home Affairs, State of Jammu & Kashmir, and the divisional commissioners of Jammu and Kashmir are all respondents in the petition. According to Bhasin, Kashmir Times is the largest circulated English daily in Jammu & Kashmir with a daily circulation of 3.5 lakh. The paper’s Srinagar edition couldn’t be distributed on August 5, and hasn’t been printed since August 6, due to the complete and absolute restriction on all communications services.

Panic, anxiety among Kashmir residents

The restrictions  on telecom/internet, on movement, and information sharing have led to panic and anxiety among residents of Kashmir, “at a time when significant political and constitutional changes are being undertaken in Delhi to the status of Jammu and Kashmir”, says the petition. It points out that fear, speculation, and alarm began on August 2 after the state government ordered Amarnath Yatra pilgrims to vacate the Valley due to security threats. Orders for schools and colleges to be closed, the exodus of tourists, and buildup of military and paramilitary forces only escalated the prevailing panic. The petition also points out the UN special rapporteur on free speech David Kaye’s condemnation of the blackout.

Blackout denies people’s Right to Know

  • The blackout is a “direct and grave violation of the people’s right to know about the decisions that will impact them.” The blockade has denied access to Parliamentary debates and the Prime Ministerial address on the issues critical to he future of people in Kashmir, and it’s “wholly excessive and unconstitutional”.
  • The fact that the order placing the restrictions was not made available in the public domain, and has not been widely published and circulated, making this illegal and an abuse of state power.
  • India is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recognizes “right to know” as an inalienable right. The UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on free speech said that the internet is a medium for free speech, and “is an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights”.

Communications blackout disables reporters from giving news inputs for print; the State has trampled over press freedoms in an “arbitrary, unreasonable, and constitutes an abuse of State power”, argues Bhasin’s petition. Even online news websites and portals have not been able to carry out reporting, it says. The blockade has caused financial and opportunity lost for Bhasin, says the petition, as Kashmir Times could not be published.

Internet access is tied with human rights covenants

The ICCPR laid out freedoms of the press, stating that public has the right to receive media output, and that the state should foster the independence of new media. “Any restriction on operation of websites, blogs, or any other internet based, electronic, or other such information dissemination system, such as ISPs or search engines,” are only compatible to the extent that they are compatible with paragraph 3 of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

  • Paragraph 3 says that restrictions on access to information can only be imposed only in two situations: one, for respect of the rights or reputations of others; and two, for protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.
  • “Permissible restrictions generally should be content-specific; generic bans on the operation of certain sites and systems are not compatible with paragraph 3.”

European Commission on Human Rights has noted that the internet has acquired “significant importance” in exercising fundamental rights and freedoms.

  • “Social media constitute a transparent platform … affording individuals the opportunity to participate in creating, and interpreting media content,” the commission has said.