Digital censorship in Punjab: internet shutdowns and account suspensions

Internet services in Punjab were shut down from March 18 till March 21 (in some districts till March 24). Reportedly, around 120 twitter accounts were suspended/ withheld. We wrote to the Punjab government and MeitY raising concerns about the internet shutdown and withheld accounts, respectively.

31 March, 2023
4 min read

tl;dr

On March 17, 2023, the state government of Punjab issued an order for the shutdown of internet services for 24 hours from noon, March 18, 2023 (“March 17 Order”). Eventually, the order was extended state-wide till March 21, and then extended again in select districts till March 23. In three districts, the Order was extended further for a period of another 24 hours, till March 24. The state government issued these orders under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety Rules), 2017 (“TSTS Rules, 2017”), which allows the suspension of internet services in situations that pose a threat to public safety or amount to public emergency. But the orders are indicative of a rise of a templatised form of suspension of mobile internet services, where internet access is restricted as a mere formality rather than a necessity. There are also reports suggesting that as many as 120 Twitter accounts reporting on the developments in the state were suspended or withheld. We wrote to the Government of Punjab and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) stating our concerns about the internet suspension and the withheld accounts, respectively.

Why should you care?

In 2022, India had the highest number of internet shutdowns (84 times) of any country in the world, for the fifth year in a row. The Supreme Court of India, in the judgement of Anuradha Bhasin vs. Union of India in 2020, has recognised that the right to freedom of expression and the right to carry on one’s occupation under Article 19 of the Constitution of India extends, fundamentally, to the medium of the internet. Additionally, in the judgement of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, the Court has held that accounts cannot be blocked without their owner being properly identified and duly notified of such restriction. To arbitrarily block the accounts of several journalists, in the midst of an overly-corrective state-wide internet shutdown, infringes on the rights of the residents of the state unnecessarily.

Why was the internet shut down?

That’s the catch - the orders do not explicitly state the perceived threat to public safety that lead to their being issued. The text of the order simply states that “certain sections of society are likely to threaten public order by incitement to violence as also resorting to widespread violence...thereby threatening public safety and public order in the State of Punjab.” The order went on to say that social media platforms were widely used by “these sections of society” to spread “inflammatory material and false rumours” to incite violent collective action.

The order refers to vague apprehension, and does not specify the exact reasons under which a perceived threat to public safety exists - which have been speculated upon by various concurrent reports. The shutdown was reportedly ordered in the context of the ongoing attempt of the Punjab police to arrest Amritpal Singh, who has alleged links to the Khalistani separatist movement.

We wrote to the Chief Secretary, Punjab

The TSTS Rules, 2017, require a Review Committee to meet within five working days and record their findings on whether the suspension order passed under the Rules was issued in accordance with the law. The original March 17 Order was issued for a period of 24 hours, and extended for 3 days. Should the Review Committee have met on the five-day mark, the original March 17 Order, even with its extensions, would have lapsed. Any findings by the Committee thereafter would no longer apply to the shutdown and, more importantly, any deliberations on the order being disproportionate in applying to the entire state of Punjab would become purely academic. Even so, we wrote to the Chief Secretary of Punjab, who is also the Chairperson of the Review Committee, and urged them to convene a meeting urgently and consider the legitimacy of the order, and its subsequent extensions.

We also highlighted our concerns in the backdrop of the Anuradha Bhasin judgement, and reiterated that the unsubstantiated reference of a ‘disturbance of peace and public order’ could not outweigh the economic, psychological, social, and journalistic harm caused by the lack of internet access.

Our Letter to MeitY

The journalistic harm caused by the shutdown also extends to the social media accounts suspended/withheld during this period. The afore-mentioned judgement in Shreya Singhal lays down that all reasonable efforts must be made to identify and notify the people whose information is sought to be blocked before access is restricted. Similar to the ambiguity in the March 17 Order, the reasons for withholding the accounts have not been made public. It is unclear whether blocking orders were provided to the affected persons, or whether an opportunity to be heard was provided before such blocking orders were issued.

We thus also wrote to the Secretary, MeitY, citing our concerns surrounding the suspension of these accounts, and the ill-effects of the action on the constitutional rights of journalists, the residents of Punjab, and the freedom of the press as a pillar of democracy as a whole. We urged the Ministry to recall the orders withholding the social media accounts, and to then make these orders public, in the interest of transparency and the spirit of the law.

Conclusion

Internet shutdowns negatively impact the rights and freedoms of the citizens affected, and India has especially borne the brunt of these infringements in the last few years. They also affect the economic and daily lives of citizens, with India succumbing to a loss of nearly $4.8 billion by imposing 15,813 hours of internet suspensions between 2019 and 2022. In Punjab alone, the state has witnessed 46 shutdowns since 2012.

Recent recommendations by the Standing Committee on Information Technology, on establishing a database of internet shutdown orders, also remain unimplemented. This makes it difficult to access relevant information to deliberate on the validity of these orders. The need of the hour is a move to reducing the arbitrary and excessive nature of internet shutdowns - alongside a recognition of the rights attached to internet access. Equally important is the need to curb state infringements on the freedom of speech and expression online, as well as on the right to receive information through social media sources, achieved by the suspension of accounts of reporters and journalists.

Important documents

  1. Our letter to MeitY on the suspension of twitter accounts (link)
  2. Our letter to the Chief Secretary, Punjab, on the internet shutdowns in the state (link)
  3. March 17 Order (link)
  4. March 21 Order (link)
  5. March 23 Order (link)
  6. Our rapid response on the shutdown and account suspensions (link)
  7. Our statement on the internet shutdowns (link)

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