Online Curfew

All routes are barred, please wait till the ban is lifted



Pin-drop silence on the routes of Server. Browser home-pages wearing a deserted look. Networking sites under house arrest. Zilch movement on status indicators of dongles. Weird, but true. This is online curfew. Sometimes declared, sometimes undeclared. 
Online curfew has become a routine in Kashmir. Any untoward situation is instantly followed by suspension of Internet services. It is the most novel way of putting curbs on people’s movement. Even if it’s a virtual movement.  
Lately, Internet services were suspended immediately after four civilians were killed by Border Security Force in Gool area of Ramban on July 18. The services have been barred on cellular phones and dongles. This time it’s a ‘declared’ online curfew unlike on past some occasions.
Like always, authorities have cited ‘security reasons’ for the move. The intent, as they claim, is to ‘prevent miscreants from spreading rumours’. One really can’t help taking this government claim with a pinch of salt. Yes, there have been rumours. And their spread ought to be prevented. But the purpose of blocking Internet seems more ‘to prevent dissemination of truth’ than ‘to prevent rumours’. It appears to prevent Kashmiri people know what’s the situation in other parts of the Valley. To prevent them from revealing the atrocities meted out to them. 
Suspension of Internet services has often been accompanied by snapping of other information sources. It’s been only some months since online curfew was enforced last. It was in the backdrop of 2001 Parliament attack convict Muhammad Afzal Guru’s execution in February. The curfew lasted several days.
That time around the online curfew was ‘undeclared’. In fact, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had claimed that they never blocked the Internet, but only shortened the bandwidth, ‘so that rumours do not fly’. I would have probably believed him had I not been a regular Internet user. So I know what the condition of Server was. 
Press too felt the pressure. Newspapers failed to hit the stands for three days. And when they did, many could not get access to them in the wake of stringent curfew. Private news channels were barred, while entertainment channels continued to be aired. As if government wanted people to remain occupied with drama and music.
Nonetheless, mobile Internet users were cut-off from rest of the world. They were left with no source of information. That too for days together. Even when online curfew was lifted, Internet signal never improved on GPRS connections. Even after normalcy returned. Meanwhile, broadband connections remained untouched.  Perhaps because they are mainly used by the elite class of the society. By ‘elite’ I mean mainstream political leaders, whom authorities do not want to upset.
Some years back Internet would serve as an important medium to reveal the ground situation in Kashmir. Especially at times when authorities gagged the media. First it happened during the Amarnath land row in 2008. The civilians, who took to the streets to stage protests against land transfer to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, recorded mobilization of people and human rights violations on mobile phone cameras and shared the same on Internet. 
During 2010 summer unrest, a complete information blackout was enforced in Kashmir. Police foiled distribution of newspapers and seized newspaper bundles. Newspaper organisations had to suspend operations. Cable television was blocked.
Hence, Internet was the sole medium available with people. Some newspaper organisations continued publishing news online besides news portals. It helped people know about the situation in other localities. Then soon axe fell on Internet service as well. This vital source of information fell victim to what government term as ‘security reasons’, hence depriving people of some fundamental human rights.
Snapping of Internet services is a sheer violation of Right to Information and Freedom of Speech. People have every right to know what’s happening around them. Similarly, they have a right to communicate. 
If government intends to thwart the spread of rumours, let them bar only social networking sites. These sites sometimes serve as a breeding ground for gossips. Their risk of being misused cannot be ignored, even if they have helped people narrate their true stories. But why block Internet as a whole? Why block news sites, if authorities’ intention is not to prevent the access to news? Rather in the absence of authentic information from reliable sources, rumours are more likely to spread. There is a better and proper way to stop the spread of rumours. 
And then, blocking of search engines and email sites seems irrational. People are being unnecessarily barred from even exchanging emails. This speaks volumes about the violation of basic communication rights in Kashmir. Especially in the Communication Age. Professionals in particularly feel handicapped in the absence of Internet services.
Such rights violations are not new to Kashmir. It’s been more than three years since Short Messaging Service (SMS) has been banned on prepaid mobile connections in J&K. The service was banned on June 29, 2010, following agitation against the killing of some teenage protesters by police and paramilitary forces. The ban was later revoked on post-paid connections in December 2010, whereas prepaid connections have got no respite so far.
Recently a shocker came from the central government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL). It revealed that the ban on SMS service was enforced by Home Department of J&K government and not the central government. This was informed to the State Human Rights Commission after the latter issued a notice to BSNL in this regard. It has also exposed the real intentions of the state government. 
The bottom-line is online or offline, Kashmiri people have had enough of human rights violations. If enforcing restrictions on streets is an obligation for the authorities,  let them lift this online curfew at least. Once for all.
(Rabia Noor is Research Scholar at Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.)

Lastupdate on : Sun, 21 Jul 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sun, 21 Jul 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Mon, 22 Jul 2013 00:00:00 IST

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