The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organization has called on the Indian government to restore high-speed internet in Kashmir, saying keeping the restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic is “criminal irresponsibility”.
It was widely rumoured on social media at mid-week that high-speed Internet was about to be restored in the northern territory of Jammu and Kashmir, but India’s ministry of home affairs denied the rumours on 25 March. Minister of state Gangapuram Kishan Reddy simply said: “The matter is being discussed.”
Hopes were definitively dashed by a note published yesterday by the J&K government. The note, which RSF has seen, confirms that mobile phone Internet continues to be limited to second-generation (2G) and that the pre-paid connections normally used by three-quarters of the public are still banned. Internet connections also continue to be reined in by a process called “MAC-binding” (Media Access Control-binding).
Internet service had been blocked in the region following the Indian government’s stripping of the region’s autonomy in August of last year and placing it under lockdown.
At the end of January, the Indian authorities restored mobile 2G Internet, which allows users to send and receive SMS messages but not much more. Low-speed fixed-line Internet was restored on 5 March but continues to be subject to MAC-binding, which makes pages very slow to load.
“Imagine a population under a coronavirus lockdown that cannot communicate by Internet,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “This is the cruel reality to which the citizens of the Kashmir Valley, including its journalists, are currently being subjected.
Bastard added: “At a time when people under lockdown all over the world are using the Internet to work, communicate and get information, the 8 million Kashmiris continue to be cut off from the absolutely vital information that is needed to prevent the spread of the pandemic. As this demonstrates potentially criminal irresponsibility, New Delhi must immediately restore high speed Internet in the Kashmir Valley,”
Several Kashmir-based journalists confirmed the dangers to RSF. Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times, Jammu and Kashmir’s oldest English-language daily, said: “These communication blockades force people, especially journalists, to work in their offices or at the government-run media facilitation centre, putting themselves at high risk from the pandemic.”
Majid Hyderi, a journalist who freelances for Indian and international media outlets, said depriving Kashmiris of high-speed Internet was “like siding with the coronavirus.” She added: “Not only is working from home not an option but people in Kashmir cannot even watch WHO video clips on coronavirus awareness.”
Journalists said their ability to fulfil their crucial role of spreading public health information was badly compromised. “Communication in times of any crisis is absolutely fundamental,” freelancer Arif Shafi Wani told RSF.
Calling the situation ”a major violation of human rights,” author and political commentator Gowhar Geelani said: “When the entire world is under a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic and health professionals recommend watching awareness videos and films at home, the J&K government has announced yet another order restricting the Internet in Kashmir. The authorities are writing one of the darkest chapters in history.”
In addition to these major curbs on communications, the security forces obstruct Kashmiri journalists when they are out in the field, subjecting them to intimidation, seizing their phones and violating the confidentiality of their sources, as RSF reported at the start of March.