Social Media: Govt Control Vs Freedom of Speech

  • JAVAID MALIK
  • Publish Date: Jul 8 2018 9:42PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 8 2018 9:42PM
Social Media: Govt Control Vs Freedom of Speech

Speculations are rife that the authorities may impose a ban on internet calls and strictly monitor social media in Kashmir. For a long time now, the security agencies have been claiming that banning the social media would help in “restoring the law and order”; but the political parties are wary of the proposal, fearing that fresh harsh measures would increase the already widening gap between them and the people.

The emergence of social networking sites like facebook, twitter and instagram have allowed people in Kashmir to express their views without any censorship. The social media has become a potent platform for young and the old.

It is not for the first time that social media is under scanner in Kashmir. In fact the debate of government control versus freedom of speech on internet started right from the day people started using it in the Valley. On April 26, 2017 the PDP-BJP government imposed a month-long ban on the social networking websites and instant messaging groups to tackle the pro-freedom protests. The ban led to murmurs that curbs were imposed to install hi-tech servers to monitor the social media users. Authorities neither confirmed nor denied the rumours.

Mainstream political parties believe that people should be allowed to access the social media without any interference as right to speech is their fundamental right. However, when in power, all political parties have off and on banned the internet to quell the street protests.

“Times have changed and social media has become an important part of life. If there is any negative impact of the social media it can be discussed but we are not in favour of banning the social media,” says PDP chief spokesman Rafi Mir.

Recalling the introduction of mobile phones in Jammu and Kashmir, Mir says, “Initially security agencies opposed allowing the cell phones in J&K. Our late leader Mufti Muhammad Sayeed persuaded the Government of India to allow the cellular companies to explore J&K and ultimately mobile phones reached the state. At that point of time also security agencies had claimed that cell phones are a security threat but time has proved that more than militants, security forces have got benefited due to cell phones.”

On December 27, 2017 the PDP-BJP government barred its employees from engaging in political discussions or criticising the policies of the government on the social media. It had cautioned its workforce against updating posts which are “illegal and anti-national.” The guidelines also discouraged social media use “in a manner that were construed to imply that government endorses personal activities of the users.”

Invoking J&K service conduct rules, the then J&K government led by PDP said that any violation of the directives empowers it to dismiss the erring employees from service, pre-maturely retire them, withhold their promotion or salary increments and even demote them to lower positions.

The gag order, issued for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir, had come at a time when people including youth and government employees were seen increasingly participating in discussions—ranging from politics to governance and host of other issues—on social media. 

National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah, who is one of the most tech-savvy politicians in the state, with 2.9 million followers on twitter, used to tweet every happening when he was the chief minister of the state. He continued it even after relinquishing the office. When PDP-led government imposed a blanket ban on the internet in Kashmir to tackle the 2016 unrest, Omar opposed the move tooth and nail. He castigated the PDP-BJP government of “gagging” the people, but the PDP was quick to remind him of using similar tactics when in power.

However, provincial president of the National Conference Nasir Aslam Wani, who is considered to be a close associate of Omar, claims that his party has “never supported the argument” that social media should be monitored and internet calling should be banned. “Social networking sites have become a platform for the people to give vent to their feelings. If these sites are blocked or banned it won’t leave people with any other option other than to hit the streets and pelt stones,” he adds.

He says that as long as the users “don’t cross the line” there is nothing wrong in using the social media. “We should be open to criticism and allow people to point out our mistakes. Proposal to ban the social media and internet calling was moved by the PDP-BJP government as they were unable to tolerate criticism. Now they are gone and situation will improve as half of the people’s anger has died down with their fall,” claims Wani.  

In the recent past Jammu and Kashmir Police had announced that a massive crackdown would be launched against the users who use the cyber-space “to spread hatred and foment trouble.”

An official who has served in the cyber cell of the Jammu and Kashmir Police believes that virtual world is a vast space and it cannot be monitored fully or controlled. “Social media has always remained a big challenge for the law enforcing agencies. It’s not possible to trace all the complaints related to the social networking sites. Only high profile cases are investigated while routine cases are closed even without tracing the addresses of internet service providers,” he says.

When BJP-led NDA government came to power in New Delhi it announced that “separatism in any form won’t be tolerated” and all the possible steps would be taken to bring situation under control in Kashmir. Besides tightening the noose around separatist leaders, many steps were taken to “enforce peace” in Kashmir.

Former deputy chief minister and senior BJP leader Kavinder Gupta says that his party has never been against the people of Kashmir. “But we oppose those elements who are anti-national and want to disintegrate India. BJP has never compromised on the issues related to national security nor would we ever compromise on it.”

Gupta was of the opinion that a few people have created a “wrong perception” about the BJP in Kashmir. He claims that his party has never advocated imposing restrictions on the social media but wants “security agencies to trace the elements who vitiate peace.”

“Ninety eight percent people in Kashmir want peace and we cannot make them suffer for the sake of 2% people,” he says. 

Separatists, who have been at the receiving end ever since BJP came to power in New Delhi in 2014, have been urging the international human rights organizations to take note of the sufferings of the people and use their influence to end “suppression” in the Valley. 

Chairman of Hurriyat Conference (M) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who has got one lakh thirty six thousand followers on the twitter says, “New Delhi has tried everything to curb the dissent. Kashmiris have been facing bans and other atrocities for the past 70 years.”

Mirwaiz says that social media arrived just a few years ago but today it’s being described as a “major security threat.” “People of Kashmir are intelligent and they are using it to create awareness about their cause.”

He claims that agencies monitor activities of each Kashmiri user and in the past many people have been served legal notices by the police. “On many occasions twitter and facebook block the accounts of the people. Delhi can go to any extent to stop the world from knowing what’s happening in Kashmir. It won’t be any surprise for us if the authorities block the social media in the Valley,” says the Mirwaiz.     

Additional director general of police (law and order) Muneer Khan, who has served in different capacities since 1990 in the Valley, believes that social media is being “misused by the people to settle personal scores.” “On many occasions we have seen that unfounded and baseless allegations are leveled against the citizens. It has become a nuisance. Users should use this platform responsibly,” he says.

Khan says that it’s not impossible to monitor the social media and whenever police come across the offenders they are traced and booked.

IGP Kashmir, S P Pani, who has also served in the Intelligence Bureau and the National Investigation Agency, says, “Social media is a very important tool, it has to be used responsibly. Misuse of social media comes under the ambit of offence. Police investigate such cases, though it’s difficult at times to trace the offenders but with the help of service providers cases are cracked.”

(Javaid Malik is Senior Editor Greater Kashmir and can be reached at malikjavaid123@gmail.com)