Srinagar: International human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has called upon the World Health Organisation (WHO) to impress upon the Indian authorities, besides those in three other South Asian nations, “the need to put an end to the ongoing internet disruption” in Jammu and Kashmir.
The letter addressed to WHO’s Deputy Director-General, Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, stated that the disruption of the internet “[compounds] the risk for minority groups, as they are denied access to the health information on COVID-19 provided by the WHO and other experts that could save their lives.”
Stating that residents in J-K were unable to access information about COVID-19 pandemic due to the restriction on high-speed internet, the letter has specifically noted that “doctors and other health workers who are fighting to prevent the spread of the virus are struggling to download intensive care management guidelines published on various digital platforms in the country.”
Indian authorities had enforced a complete communications embargo in J-K on 5 August 2019 as New Delhi revoked the region’s limited autonomy as well as statehood. The blockade was gradually eased but restrictions on the internet continued for 213 days, with observers noting it as the longest internet blackout in any democracy.
Currently, high speed internet on mobiles phones – on which the majority of users in J-K depend upon – continues to be restricted to slow speed. The J-K administration has cited national security as reasons for the restrictions and further defended the same stating that the slow speed had no impact on access to education or information.
Despite repeated appeals from various rights groups and healthcare collectives, the authorities have not restored the high-speed internet in Kashmir, as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the region. So far, at least twenty-four people have died while more than 1,700 are infected by the virus.
According to Software Freedom Law Centre, a New Delhi based digital rights’ advocacy group that tracks internet shutdowns in the country, India has recorded at least 391 shutdowns of internet since 2012. Three of India’s four longest shutdowns of the internet took place in J-K.
The letter written on behalf of the #KeepItOn coalition – a global network of more than 210 grassroots advocacy groups across seventy-five countries, working to end internet shutdowns globally – has stated that the pandemic “amplifies the need for access to universal, resilient, open, secure, and affordable access to information and communications technologies for all”.
The letter has urged the WHO to:
“1. Urge the governments of India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and any other that shuts down the internet, to restore access to the internet in these regions to enable marginalized communities to enjoy their fundamental right of access to information, a core obligation of states and necessary to achieving the highest attainable standard of health.
2. Publicly denounce the use of internet shutdowns as a hindrance to the WHO mission and an acute threat to public health, and encourage governments to recognize the important role of the internet in times of crises.
3. Continue to prioritize efforts to increase access to reliable information and encourage active cooperation on the part of the public, by providing the latest news and information on COVID-19, in order to improve the health of all people.”