Srinagar: A prominent international human rights organization on Tuesday called upon India to lift internet restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir saying ‘intentionally’ shutting down or restricting access to the internet violates multiple rights and can be deadly during a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic
In a statement issued from New York, the Human Rights Watch said today said that during a health crisis, access to timely and accurate information is crucial as people use the internet for updates on health measures, movement restrictions, and relevant news to protect themselves and others.
“Internet shutdowns block people from getting essential information and services,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate.
“During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control” she added.
The senior HRW official further said that internet shutdowns have become increasingly common in recent years, usually during tense periods, such as elections, anti-government protests, or armed conflicts.
“Thirty-three countries enforced 213 internet shutdowns in 2019, according to Access Now. Government justifications ranged from a need to combat fake news to public safety and national security,” she said.
Referring to India, she said that India had the most internet shutdowns with at least 385 ordered since 2012.
“In Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government imposed a complete communications blackout in August 2019, which stopped families from communicating and disrupted the local economy. Phone services were gradually restored, but it was only after the Supreme Court found the internet shutdown illegal in January 2020 that service was partially restored, and only at 2G speed,” Brown said.
Since COVID-19 spread to India, she said, people have reported not being able to access websites that provide information about the pandemic due to highly restricted speeds that make accessing anything beyond text messages nearly impossible. She said even the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation has called on the government to make all tools including high speed internet available to doctors and patients to save lives.
“During a global pandemic, when people around the world are isolated and access to information can mean life or death, it’s time to impose a moratorium on internet shutdowns,” Brown said.
She said that the governments should ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service for all.
“Countries should prioritize their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.
She also named Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Myanmar, where restrictions on the internet services continue.