What’s the news: India was among the top two countries to record the highest number of internet restrictions in 2023, Surfshark said in its report. India recorded 11 out of the 55 internet restrictions reported in Asia. The only country to top this number was Iran with 29 restrictions, all of them related to anti-government protests.
Why it matters: As per the report, eight Asian governments imposed the 55 restrictions, affecting 1.9 billion people or a fourth of the global population. These restrictions – partial or complete internet and social media shutdowns – obstruct free speech online. For example, social media platforms can prove to be useful tools to inform the masses about ground realities during times of political turmoil. Since the restrictions and bans mentioned here come from governments themselves, the report provides important information about the treatment of free speech by various ruling regimes. This is particularly important considering that 2024 is election season in India.
Here’s what Lina Survila, Surfshark spokeswoman, had to say on this topic: “Internet shutdowns are commonly used by autocratic regimes to hinder communications, thwart protest organization, and cut people off from loved ones in times of political unrest. During elections, internet restrictions limit the spread of information about candidates, eroding the democratic integrity of elections. Furthermore, amid violent government crackdowns, internet blackouts can effectively prevent the dissemination of critical information regarding human rights abuses to the international community. The increasingly frequent use of internet shutdowns threatens the global foundation of free speech and human rights, dangerously tipping the scale towards oppression and away from democratic accountability.”
How Asian countries fared in terms of internet restrictions in 2023
The report said Asia was the leading continent in new internet restrictions in 2023. Aside from the whole of India, the report also noted that four short-term internet restrictions were reported in Jammu and Kashmir alone. This was a significant decline from the 42 instances recorded in 2022.
Other Asian countries and territories grappling with restricted internet access included: four cases in Pakistan, three cases in Yemen, two cases in Turkey and one case in Iraq.
“China, Turkmenistan and Oman are counting nearly 15 years of continuous restrictions that don’t seem to be coming to an end anytime soon,” said the report.
Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh also have upcoming elections in 2024. The report warned that considering their track record of imposing internet restrictions, these countries (including India) are at risk of more restrictions as elections draw near.
Supreme Court dismissed a plea regarding internet shutdown in December 2023
On December 7, 2023, the Supreme Court of India refused to accept a plea by journalists’ group Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) seeking government compliance with the guidelines for internet shutdown. However, the Court decided that a “miscellaneous application in a closed matter was no longer maintainable” and said that the petitioners could ask for a review instead. Still, the plea caught public eye due to the continued non-compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines by various state governments.
However, on January 31, 2024, the Supreme Court directed that the orders of the Review Committee, going over the internet shutdown directions issued by Jammu & Kashmir authorities, must be published. This ensures that there is some accountability and transparency on the government’s part regarding such internet shutdowns. It also stresses the accountability of the Review Committee after reports that the Review Committees are “slacking” in effectively reviewing the orders.
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