While disposing of a petition challenging past Internet shutdowns in Jharkhand, the Jharkhand High Court directed the state government to follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines in Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India and Foundation for Media Professionals v Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, should it decide to suspend Internet services in the future.
The September 11th verdict was delivered in SFLC.in’s Public Interest Litigation challenging three Internet suspensions in the state in 2022. Among other things, the advocacy group requested the state government to publish the suspension orders on its website.
In 2020’s Anuradha Bhasin judgment, the Supreme Court held that indefinite Internet suspensions are illegal and that suspension orders should satisfy proportionality and necessity tests. Suspension orders must also be made public and can be subject to judicial review. Foundation for Media Professionals challenged the 4G suspension in Jammu and Kashmir. While highlighting Jammu and Kashmir’s “compelling” concerns of “cross border terrorism”, the Court held that the suspension order in question did not provide reasons for the blanket shutdown across all of the union territory’s districts.
The February 2022 shutdown came after communal clashes erupted when a teenager attending a Hindu ceremony died. Subsequent shutdowns in June 2022 came after BJP MP Nupur Sharma’s controversial remarks on Islam. During the hearings, the Jharkhand government argued that the shutdowns were issued to prevent disturbances to public order.
“We are of the opinion that the suspension of internet services for the said periods by the State Government cannot be found fault with,” observed Chief Justice Sanjaya Kumar Mishra and Justice Ananda Sen. “However, the respondents should have notified the orders suspending the internet services in their web site at [an] appropriate time as per the directions given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Anuradha Bhasin versus Union of India.”
The Jharkhand government will have to upload all previous Internet suspension orders on the state government’s website within 48 hours, the Jharkhand High Court added on September 11th.
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What SFLC asked for in its petition: The advocacy group requested the Court to direct the Jharkhand government to publish Internet suspension orders issued on 7th February 2022, 10th June 2022, and 11th June 2022 on the “websites” and to produce them in court too. It also sought that these orders be quashed. SFLC also requested the entire proceedings of the Review Committee, including any orders passed by it, concerning the three Internet suspension orders.
Under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, the Review Committee is supposed to meet within five working days of the suspension order being issued due to public emergencies or public safety. It should record its findings on the legality of the orders. The Centre and individual state governments appoint their own respective Review Committees.
Finally, it also requested the Court to direct the state government to “strictly comply” with the Supreme Court’s guidelines on Internet suspensions, laid down in 2020’s Anuradha Bhasin ruling.
How did the Jharkhand government respond? On February 6th, 2022, Jharkhand’s Home Secretary was made aware of “incidents” taking place in the state that could lead to a “breach of public order”. This “necessitated” Internet suspensions in five districts—Hazaribagh, Giridih, Chatra, Koderma, and Ramgarh—and services were snapped the same day from 11 pm onwards, until “further orders”. The suspension lasted for “a short period”—with the order revoked on February 8th. The main objective here was to prevent the spread of rumours and fake information online, which could disturb law and order.
The Internet was subsequently suspended for a “few hours” two other times. The state government argued that these decisions were taken “because of the exigency of the situation only to prevent loss of life and property, which could have taken place because of breach of public order and law and order in certain Districts”.
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