IFF wrote to Manipur State Authorities on the ongoing digital rights violations

June 22 marked 50 days of Manipur's ongoing state-wide internet shutdown. In wake of this shutdown, we have written to the Chief Secretary of Manipur, the Director General of Police, Manipur and other local authorities highlighting our concerns.

24 June, 2023
5 min read

Tl;d

June 22, 2023 marked 50 days of Manipur's ongoing state-wide internet shutdown. In wake of this shutdown, we have written to the Chief Secretary of Manipur, the Director General of Police, Manipur and other local authorities highlighting our concerns surrounding the continuous suspension of mobile internet services in Manipur; use of Section-124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, as well as online censorship. The state-wide internet shutdown has been in place since May 3, 2023. Since the second day of the shutdown, all internet services have been suspended through templated orders issued every five days. This contradicts the Supreme Court of India's ruling in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, which prohibits indefinite internet service suspensions. Reportedly, an FIR has been registered under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which violates the interim order of the SC in S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India, that stayed Section 124-A of the IPC. Further, news reports of arbitrary online censorship have also surfaced in Manipur wherein Twitter accounts of local groups have been withheld.

Background

Commissioner (Home) of Manipur by Order No. H-3607/4/2022-HD-HD dated May 3, 2023 (“May 3 Order”) suspended mobile data services state-wide for a period of 5 days. The reason cited in May 3 Order was that it intended to “thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements… by stopping the spread of disinformation and false rumours, through various social media platform such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. on mobile phone”. The Commissioner (Home) of Manipur by Order No. H-3607/4/2022-HD-HD dated May 4, 2023 (“May 4 Order”) extended the internet suspension to a blanket ban on all internet services, including broadband and VSAT. The ongoing internet shutdown is now being enforced through templatised orders that are issued every 5 days.

Most recently the Commissioner (Home) of Manipur issued Order No. H-3607/4/2022-HD-HD dated June 20, 2023 which extended the ongoing internet suspension shutdown to June 25, 2023. With this Order, the internet shutdown in Manipur has now continued for over 50 days, and is effectively of an indefinite nature.

In the Districts of Churachandpur and Pherzawl, internet services have been suspended since April 27, 2023, pursuant to Order No. 1/1(3)/2008-H dated April 27, 2023 (“April 27 Order”). Residents of these districts have witnessed an internet suspension for almost two months now. The reasons stated in the April 27 Order were replicated in the May 3 Order and all subsequent orders.

Our Letter to the Chief Secretary, Special Secretary (Home), DG Police & Commissioner (Home)

Under the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, all  suspension orders must be forwarded to the Review Committee of the State by the next working day, and the Review Committee must sit within five days to deliberate on the legality of the order and record their findings. Despite several weeks having been passed since the first suspension order was issued, there is no public information regarding the constitution and findings of the Review Committee.

In our letter dated June 23, 2023 addressed to the Chief Secretary, Manipur, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the Manipur Review Committee, we have requested for a meeting to be convened immediately to record its findings on the legality of the April 27 Order, May 3 Order, and subsequent orders, and to urgently consider whether internet suspension is necessary and proportional for all three dates that have been specified in the Order. In the interest of transparency and the spirit of the law, as well as the SC’s judgement in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, (2020) 3 SCC 63, we request that the review committee ensure that the minutes of this meeting be published in public domain.

We further address the economic, psychological, social, and journalistic harm caused by such suspensions, and how it outweighs any speculative benefits as, amongst other things, residents of the affected areas are unable to communicate, carry on with their businesses, trades or professions, continue their education or verify the news that they receive.

We recently published a joint report with Human Rights Watch (HRW) which found that the internet shutdowns impact people’s rights to food, work, education, and health. This report highlights the impact that internet shutdowns have on India’s poor and marginalised people, especially as the Digital India project makes internet access essential for accessing subsidised food grains, rural employment schemes and e-governance assistance in rural areas. During such shutdowns, many government schemes which make use of internet resources become ineffective for its beneficiaries.

Further, internet shutdowns have been shown to be an unsuccessful remedy for the objectives stated in the April 27 Order and the subsequent orders. Many scholars such as Jan Rydzak and Nishant Joshi, have empirically studied internet shutdowns, and found that they are ineffective in pacifying protests and often have unintended consequences of incentivizing violent forms of collective action which require less communication and coordination.

In our letter, we have also highlighted news reports indicating that an FIR had been registered under S. 124-A of the IPC. This is in contravention of the SC’s Interim Order dated May 11, 2022 in S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India, W.P. (C) No. 682 of 2021 wherein the Court stayed the operation of S. 124-A of the IPC. Further, the SC specifically directed the State and Union Governments to refrain from registering FIRs, conducting investigations, or taking any other coercive measures under S. 124-A of the IPC.

Additionally, according to news reports, Twitter accounts are being subjected to censorship and withholding in India ‘under a legal demand’. However, no official legal orders or demands have been made public by the authorities, leaving individuals unaware of the reasons behind the censorship and depriving them of the opportunity to legally contest such orders. The practice of maintaining secrecy in online censorship and bans, an ongoing administrative approach, undermines both the individual's fundamental right to freedom of expression and the collective fundamental right to receive information.

We will continue to fight against internet shutdowns and violations of digital rights wherever they occur in India.

  1. Letter dated June 23, 2023, addressed to the Chief Secretary, Government of Manipur and other authorities (link)
  2. Our Statement dated June 22, 2023, on 50-days of the internet shutdowns in Manipur (link)
  3. Internet Shutdown Order dated April 27, 2023 (link)
  4. Internet Shutdown Order dated May 3, 2023 (link)
  5. Internet Shutdown Order dated May 4, 2023 (link)
  6. Internet Shutdown Order dated June 20, 2023 (link)
  7. Order dated May 11, 2022 in S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India, W.P. (C) No. 682 of 2021 (link)
  8. HRW and IFF’s report titled “No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food - Internet Shutdowns Deny Access to Basic Rights in “Digital India” (link)
  9. Previous blogpost dated May 9, titled “The duration of internet shutdowns in Manipur crosses 10 days. IFF wrote to Manipur Chief Secretary urging scrutiny of orders #KeepItOn” (link)
  10. Previous blogpost dated April 28, titled “Manipur has ordered an internet shutdown for five days. IFF wrote to its Chief Secretary urging scrutiny of orders #KeepItOn” (link)  

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