We at MediaNama strongly condemn the State and the Union government’s apathy towards the ghastly events unfolding in Manipur since May this year.
While the viral video from May of two women from the Kuki-Zomi community in Manipur being paraded naked is making heads turn towards the unrest in Manipur only now, several reports by Manipuri journalists revealed that the residents have been experiencing similar incidents of violence and assault against women for almost three months.
Chief Minister N. Biren Singh admitted on live television that hundreds of such incidents are happening, but only one video made it to the public’s eyes. The vacuum of information continues to exist because the State government chose to impose a state-wide internet shutdown for over 75 days, depriving the people of Manipur a space to voice their sufferings, anguish, and anxieties to the rest of the country.
Even now the government appears not angry at what is happening in Manipur, but at the fact that the video came out and people are talking about it. With immediate orders to take down posts related to the incident on social media the government has prioritised further restricting the flow of information using powers under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. While the video in question should rightfully not be allowed to circulate on any platform, withholding posts questioning the government on its silence over the atrocities against women in Manipur, as well as raising a call for action, is legitimate speech.
It is unclear on what specific grounds Twitter is being asked to withhold tweets that condemn the violence because Section 69A orders are confidential. Ultimately, these actions by the government are an unjustified violation of people’s freedom of speech, expression as well as access to information, and the confidentiality that the rules to Section 69A provide should not be used as a means of evading accountability or preventing a call for accountability.
In May, a widely circulated alleged video of a Meitei woman being assaulted triggered violence against the Kuki-Zomi tribal communities. The video was later debunked but the fact that fake news triggered an unending cycle of revenge violence, especially against the marginalised Kuki-Zomi tribal community, demonstrates the failure of internet shutdowns in curbing fake news or transmission of fabricated information and thus, in maintaining public order.
On the contrary, access to internet and communication channels would have provided people with an opportunity to share countering information and also to check the veracity of or debunk the false images and videos in time. The government could have used the Internet for calling for peace, and for counter speech. Access to the Internet would have enabled journalists from the affected communities to promptly report on the incidents of violence and with first-hand information from people who are on ground zero.
On July 7, the Manipur High Court directed the State government to provide internet services through Internet Lease Line and Fibre to the home connections on a case-to-case basis and only to whitelisted phone numbers. A partial lifting of the Internet ban serves no purpose for the common citizen: in a country where a majority of connectivity is via mobile, it creates an environment of uncertainty and insecurity for all. The High Court’s directions lack urgency in dealing with internet shutdown petitions from the residents, and do not really provide any kind of immediate respite from the infringement on their right to access the internet in times of uncontrolled crisis.
There are serious questions about the manner in which these internet shutdowns were ordered. In contradiction to the Supreme Court’s judgment in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the Manipur government has not made all the internet shutdown orders public yet. As pointed out by petitioners from Manipur and internet rights organisations like the Internet Freedom Foundation, the orders available in public were copy-pasted from previous such orders. Further, there is no publicly available information on the statements of Review Committees, if at all the extension orders were reviewed. There is no information on the evaluation reports by the government to assess if the internet ban can be lifted. In short, there is a complete lack of transparency in these processes that have critical implications for people’s rights.
The Supreme Court is separately hearing petitions on violence in Manipur, but has declined to hear the petitions on internet shutdowns. It is worth pondering why has the Supreme Court not considered the petitioners’ plea and left it to the discretion of the Manipur High Court. Neither Court has ordered an investigation yet to check if due process was followed to cut off access to the internet in the State.
As Manipur residents have detailed out in their petitions, a prolonged internet shutdown has impacted people’s basic right to livelihood pushing them into economic crisis and has taken away the means to communicate to their friends and family members, including those in other parts of the country and the world, at a time when information is the only key to planning out survival methods in a conflict-ridden area.
By cutting off access to the internet, the authorities did not really employ a measure against misinformation, but successfully restricted visibility to what was happening in the state. With no visibility, voices demanding accountability from the State machinery, the Central government and the Prime Minister fell on deaf years. With hundreds of people killed and more injured, and thousands displaced from their homeland, the humanitarian crisis in Manipur indicates a complete failure of the State police, State Home Department and the Union Home Ministry to protect the citizens and safeguard their democratic rights.
The Supreme Court, “deeply disturbed” by the suppressed video, has reportedly directed the Centre and Manipur government to take action to curb the violence and inform it of these actions. We urge the Court to also step in and direct the state government to restore Internet services across Manipur with immediate effect. Secondly, the government must abide by the Supreme Court’s orders on transparent, proportionate, and time-bound internet blocking as per Anuradha Bhasin. Thirdly, the government must not muzzle discussions around what’s happening in Manipur by indiscriminately issuing blocking orders to social media platforms and should rather engage in fair, transparent, and constitutional blocking practices, by following all the checks and balances embedded into Section 69A of the IT Act.
Finally, these horrific events call for strengthening transparency, accountability, and law enforcement in the state. This situation should also not be used as an excuse by the government to break end-to-end encryption, which would be a disproportionate infringement of user privacy in digital communications.
MediaNama’s Editorial Team