UN officials urge India to lift ban on social media, mobile internet in held Kashmir

Two United Nations special rapporteurs are urging the Indian government to lift ban on social media sites and mobile internet service in the India-held portion of Kashmir.

Top experts working with the world body also urged New Delhi on Thursday to pursue an open and democratic dialogue to address the region’s social and political conflicts.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said in a statement issued Thursday in Geneva that the ban has “the character of collective punishment” and a “disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir.”

“The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment [and] fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression,” said David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said that “Denying such access disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern”.

Indian authorities late last month banned 22 social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and mobile internet services such as Whatsapp for one month in the region in an effort to calm tensions after videos depicting the alleged abuse of Kashmiris by Indian forces fueled protests.

Others sites and apps covered by the ban include Wechat; QQ; Qzone; Google Plus; Skype; Line; Pinterest; Snapchat; YouTube; Vine and Flickr.

The Indian government says it is necessary for public safety because anti-India activists were misusing social media.

It said the services were “being misused by anti-national and anti-social elements” and should be blocked for one month or until further notice “in the interest of maintenance of public order”.

“[The ban] is to control the political space. The government is trying to control things in a military way which is not going to help,” Gull Mohammad Wani, a professor and political analyst, told Al Jazeera after the ban was imposed.

“The government is claiming it has taken this step to calm the situation down. In the absence of social media, rumors can be more dangerous, as we have seen in the past.”

Kashmiris have been uploading videos and photos of alleged abuse for some years, but several recently posted clips, captured in the days surrounding a violence-plagued local election on April 9, have proven to be especially powerful and have helped to intensify anti-India protests.

Indian police and paramilitary officials accuse agitators of using social media to instigate violence.

Days after banning social media services, the Indian government also banned dozens of Pakistani and Saudi Arabian TV channels from being aired in India-held Kashmir — a move that was criticized by Kashmir’s All Parties Hurriyet Conference as a “strangulation of freedom of expression”.

Last year, US think tank the Brookings Institution in a report said that India blocked access to the internet in various regions to prevent demonstrations 22 times in the 12 months starting in July 2015, more often than Syria, Pakistan and Turkey did put together.

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