From Internet Blackouts to Violent Attacks, South Asia Saw New Threats to Free Expression Online in 2017

Social media ban. Images mixed by Rezwan.

In 2017, South Asian countries faced growing challenges in the field of internet freedom, censorship, and freedom of expression. The Global Voices South Asia team highlighted many of these issues throughout the year. Here is a summary of our coverage.

Internet shutdowns

Internet shutdowns and blackouts in conflict areas rose sharply in 2017, threatening citizens’ access to communications, information and free expression online. Unique regions of India and Pakistan saw both total shutdown and partial shutdowns (e.g. of mobile data networks). The shutdowns not only curb the rights of freedom of expression laid out in these countries’ constitutions, they also have economic implications affecting business and public services.

The Global Voices Advox Netizen Report noted that internet blackouts are becoming an increasingly common tactic for local and regional authorities when faced with public consternation around politics and elections, ethnic and religious tensions, and incidents of violence.

Since January 1, 2017, there have been 65 regional-level Internet shutdowns in India. In 2016, there were 31 such shutdowns. The Software Freedom Law Centre of New Delhi has an online interactive map that shows the location and details of each Internet shutdown in India, along with a short description of public events coinciding with the shutdown.

Screenshot from the website CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

According to data provided by digital rights group, since January 2016, Pakistan had 10 digital blackouts. Mobile internet service was shut down for more than a year in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), starting in June 2016, according to a Freedom House report.

When we look at details of these shutdowns, we find various reasons. Internet and mobile services were shut down for several days in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab following a court ruling in the criminal case against guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial leader of the hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect.

Last April, in the Indian city of Kendrapara, provincial officials blocked Internet connectivity for 48 hours to prevent the circulation of an “objectionable” video that witnesses said was insulting to the Prophet Mohammad.


Censored: News sites, tweets and Bollywood ripoffs

Internet filtering and blocking of specific websites have been a common tool of regulators and governments in several South Asian countries. In most instances, the goal was to block access to politically sensitive content. Authorities often cited national security as the reason for blocking. The blocking and filtering of the global Internet is a violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which grants everyone the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In April, authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir blocked 22 social media applications, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. According to authorities, the social media services were “being misused by anti-national and anti-social elements” in the Kashmir Valley to disturb “peace and tranquility”.

Even Bollywood gave cause for online censorship in August 2017. The Internet Archive and more than 2,600 file-sharing websites were blocked in India following two court orders issued by the Madras High Court in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (accessible here and here). The ruling, issued on August 2, 2017, was based on the petitions of two prominent Bollywood production houses, Red Chillies Entertainment and Prakash Jha Productions, to stop file-sharing websites from distributing pirated copies of two recently released Bollywood movies, “Jab Harry Met Sejal”, and “Lipstick Under My Burkha”.

In two separate requests, dated 16 August and 24 August, Indian authorities asked Twitter to suspend more than two dozen Twitter accounts and censor more than 100 tweets.

Kashmiri woman protestor dares a policeman to stop her from moving ahead during restrictions imposed in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Administered Kashmir. Photo by Ieshan Wani, used with permission.

Shortly thereafter, Twitter notified the account holders and asked them to voluntarily remove the questionable content, warning that Twitter might otherwise be obliged to take action regarding the content identified in the complaint.

Early this year Sri Lanka enacted the Right to Information Act. On November 8, 2017 independent news website LankaeNews had been blocked across all internet service providers in Sri Lanka. Three independent news sites in Sri Lanka filed requests as per the RTI Act in order to get more information about the blocking process and the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) revealed that 13 websites had been blocked from 2015 and the paper trail leads to the highest levels of the government. The websites included political news and pornographic material.

Violent threats against bloggers and media workers

Several journalists, bloggers and media workers were killed in a number of South Asian countries.

As many as nine Pakistani bloggers went missing within the first week of 2017. Four of the missing activists are known for their secular and left-leaning views. Some of the activists returned after weeks of captivity. According to media reports, the bloggers were subjected to torture and made to sign agreements stating that they would not seek legal course to file cases against their abductors.

In India, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders have faced increasing strain and legal intimidation under India's sedition laws and Information Technology Act 2008 in recent years.

Several journalists, writers, and poets were sued for their writings. Freelance cartoonist Bala G was arrested on November 5, 2017 for defaming the Chief Minister of the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu in a cartoon shared on social media. On on June 5, 2017, India's oldest private news channel New Delhi Television Network (NDTV) known for its hard-hitting, anti-establishment journalism had multiple offices raided by the country's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Gauri Lankesh (2012), Image from Flickr by Hari Prasad Nadig. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Veteran Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot to death by assailants on September 5, 2017, outside her home in Bangalore. Lankesh, 55, was the editor of a Kannada-language tabloid called Gauri Lankesh Patrike that took a fierce stance against Hindu nationalist organizations and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Hate speech in public discourse in India is growing, and Lankesh's murder is seen as a clear warning to the voices in India who express dissent that intolerance is growing.

In the Maldives, blogger and activist Yameen Rasheed was stabbed to death in his home in the capital Malé on April 23, 2017. An outspoken critic of the government and radical religion-based politics, Rasheed had previously reported to police that he received death threats via text message and social media for his writings. Police have said that religious extremists killed Yameen Rasheed and have initiated proceedings for a closed trial on his murder. Rasheed's family is pushing for the trial to be open to the public, out of fear that some evidence against the defendants might be destroyed.

In a statement commenting on the assassinations of Lankesh and Rasheed, the International Federation of Journalists wrote:

These killings horribly encapsulate the latest picture of threat and danger emerging from the violent discourse overtaking parts of South Asia, and more broadly around the world where authoritarian rule is eroding the very essence of democracy. With it, suffers press freedom and the public's right to know.

In May, four independent Maldivian bloggers and activists living overseas were issued arrest warrants by the police. They were warned that authorities may seek to prosecute them in absentia if they fail to return to the Maldives within two weeks of the warrants being issued. They have not yet been prosecuted.

This year, over a span of four months in Bangladesh, more than twenty journalists were sued under the country's controversial ICT law. Nearly 700 cases have been filed under the law since it was amended in 2013. Almost two thirds of the cases have been filed under Section 57 of the 2013 Information and Communication Technology Act which prohibits digital messages that can “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person,” or “hurt religious beliefs.”


Cinema censorship

The film industries in a number of countries also faced censorship for its contents.

The Bhutanese Authorities have banned screening of feature film Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, cannot be screened in the country for ‘misusing’ religious masks on screen.

Screenshot from YouTube

In India, the authorities banned two movies for ‘Being Too Lady-Oriented’ and ‘Glorifying Homosexuality’. Although the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression, it places certain restrictions on content, in order to protect communal and religious harmony and control obscenity.

As we look ahead to 2018, we hope to see justice for the many online voices and media workers who have been threatened because of their work, and we pledge to continue our coverage of the many legal and technical threats to free expression online.


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