The global #KeepItOnCoalition comprising over 40 freedom of expression non-governmental organisations, including Media Rights Agenda (MRA), has written to the government of India to lift the restriction on 4G high-speed internet access in the Jammu and Kashmir region as a step towards the containment of the COVID-19 virus and related healthcare needs.
In an open letter issued on April 24, 2020 and signed by 40 civil society organisations from around the world, the Coalition recalled that in March 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir administration resorted to slowing down internet speed to 2G, after ending a seven-month blanket internet shutdown in the two regions following a judgment on the matter by the Supreme Court in January.
The Coalition pointed out that “in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which continues to claim thousands of lives globally, access to information and the free flow of communications, including for the media, is more crucial than ever, especially given the novelty of the virus and lack of a vaccine.”
It reminded the Indian government that people are relying on the internet and digital communications platforms to access life-saving information provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health experts and that access to accurate information is indispensable in tackling the spread of COVID-19 and it must, therefore, be the priority of every government.
It enumerated the importance of the internet in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic including playing a crucial role during the pandemic in allowing people to carry out important activities; it is essential for human rights defenders, activists, and journalists to carry out their work of bringing important information to the doorsteps of the people; and access to the internet has also made it possible for many to work from home, mitigating the significant economic harms triggered by the pandemic, while also providing meaning and continuity for people in their daily lives.
The group lamented that Jammu and Kashmir are unfortunately not enjoying the benefits of internet access.
The absence of 4G internet, according to #KeepItOn Campaign, has particularly hindered the work of health professionals who are on the front lines combating this global pandemic with doctors in Jammu and Kashmir struggling to access important information, often waiting hours to download and access information such as guidelines for intensive care management of the virus and best practices recommended by the WHO. The restriction of high-speed internet access, it added, has also impeded the work of human rights defenders, journalists, and other actors working in the region.
In the same vein, residents unable to easily access updates about precautionary measures recommended by health professionals, governments, and the WHO, and often cannot check on the health of their loved ones and friends. Research by experts in India has also shown that the existing restrictions on 4G connectivity make video conferencing — currently a critical lifeline throughout India and across the globe — practically impossible to access and use effectively.
The #KepItOn Coalition warned that: “Denying citizens access to essential information about the COVID-19 virus is a flagrant violation of their right to access information, puts the lives of the residents of Jammu and Kashmir at risk, and threatens public health in India and beyond.”
it noted that judicial authorities in India have already ordered the government to explain its position and rationale behind this decision impacting fundamental rights during the pandemic. The Coalition also disclosed that a petition by the Foundation for Media Professionals is currently pending in India’s Supreme Court while the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir initiated legal proceedings after noting the impact of the restriction on high-speed internet connectivity on students in the region.
The renewed judicial scrutiny of these unfortunate decisions to restrict internet access during this time of the pandemic, it reminded the Indian authorities, provides a critical opportunity for the Indian government to reconsider and review its approach.
The global #KeepItOn coalition, therefore, echoed its urgent appeal to the government of India to:
- Immediately restore high-speed 4G internet access to full capacity to enable people in Jammu and Kashmir to be well informed and access crucial information about the virus; to ensure journalists, human rights defenders and activists have the resources to do their work;
- Lift all restrictions on the internet and all telecommunication tools unconditionally and facilitate access to a free, open, and secure internet;
- Explore the innovative ways in which internet access can contribute to containing the spread of COVID-19 as well as the opportunities the internet provides in empowering people and boosting development in the affected regions and nationwide;
- Work in collaboration with internet service providers and telecommunication companies in the country to ensure a free, open, and secure internet in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India; and
- Implement the Supreme Court of India’s recommendation to review the text and functioning of the Telecom Network Suspension Rules of 2017.