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Facebook under fire over Kashmir killings gag

Updated Jul 21, 2016 04:47pm

SRINAGAR: Facebook has come under fire in recent days for suspending certain accounts on the social media platform, belonging to both native Kashmiris and foreigners present in and outside of the disputed Himalayan region.

The accounts which have been suspended till date had posted comments, pictures or videos to highlight the treatment meted out to Kashmiris in the latest episode of unrest.

Many Facebook user accounts criticising civilian killings or supporting Kashmir’s decades-old political struggle are being temporarily suspended, with their Kashmir-related posts being removed by the social media giant. Certain users have also claimed that their accounts have been completely blocked by Facebook, while others have complained of temporary blocks lasting for 24 hours or more.

─Photo by Syed Shahriyar
─Photo by Syed Shahriyar

With a blanket ban enforced by Indian authorities on all cellular companies except Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) broadband, Kashmiris are facing tremendous difficulties.

The ban came into effect after the July 8 killing of Burhan Wani, the popular and tech-savvy Hizbul Mujahideen commander. The ban also extends to mobile internet connectivity, 2G/3G data connectivity, WhatsApp, and printing and publishing of newspapers.

Without cellular access, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate calls for blood donations for those injured by Indian government forces or to provide aid and transport for women who are in labour. Citizens of the Valley are now availing services provided by BSNL broadband to disseminate time-critical information on Facebook and Twitter.

Facing international embarrassment, the under-fire Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government in a hurriedly taken decision on July 19 said, “There are no restrictions on printing and publishing of newspapers.”

The government’s decision has drawn a lot of flak from the editors’ body of Srinagar-based newspapers, Editors Guild of India, and several international organisations for its media gag.

Read: Facebook, Google quietly move toward automatic blocking of extremist videos

Kashmiris are not alone in having their accounts suspended on Facebook, foreigners deemed as sympathisers are also in the cross hairs.

Hamza Ali Abbasi, TV and film actor who is vocal on social media regarding politics and social issues, had his post praising Wani removed by Facebook. His account was also suspended by the social media platform for a short while. “What can I say? Instances like these should teach us a lesson that we must put our own interests aside and define terrorism and terrorists as per the definition of the imperial minded so called champions of freedom of expression. Burhan Wani was not a terrorist and Kashmir’s freedom struggle is not terrorism, even if the US, India or Mark Zuckerberg think otherwise,” posted Abbasi on his timeline.

Mary Scully, an American socialist activist and a former socialist candidate for the US presidency, was outraged after her Facebook account was temporarily suspended for posting pro-Kashmiri sentiments on her timeline. “It’s a violation of the right to free speech embodied in the Bill of Rights,” said Scully while talking to Dawn.

“Facebook is obligated legally to respect the Bill of Rights and is not exempt in any way. It does not censor violent images of women but only those posts about human rights and war crimes. Facebook can have whatever reactionary politics the owners want but they cannot legally censor us in expressing ours,” she added.

Scully, in one of her posts, had drawn parallels between Kashmir and Gaza. “The monstrous symmetries between the Israeli carpet bombing of Gaza in July 2014 and the Indian military siege of Kashmir in July 2016 are a nightmare to witness. Hell to endure,” wrote Scully on July 18.

She also wrote, “FB’s censorship of posts about Kashmir, particularly those about the extrajudicial execution of Burhan Wani as well as videos of Indian Army violence, is a serious violation of the US Bill of Rights which legally binds FB since it operates out of this country.”

Censorship on the social media platform is not limited to posts on one’s timelines. Videos which show Indian paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel beating Kashmiri teenagers, assaulting the injured and attacking ambulances carrying the wounded have also been removed from Twitter and Facebook.

Dibyesh Anand's Facebook post critical of popular Indian sentiment on the ongoing Kashmir protests. ─Courtesy Dibyesh Anand
Dibyesh Anand's Facebook post critical of popular Indian sentiment on the ongoing Kashmir protests. ─Courtesy Dibyesh Anand

Dibyesh Anand, academic and associate professor at London’s Westminster University, is known for his views in favour of the Kashmiri struggle. He confirmed to Dawn in an online conversation that he too was blocked twice by Facebook for his commentary on the recent Kashmir crisis.

“If scholars, writers and prominent public figures in Kashmir, India, Pakistan, UK and USA can be censored by Facebook for posts that are critical of Indian atrocities but legally sound and socially responsible, we can imagine the message it gives out to ordinary people facing a siege in Kashmir. The message is one where not only the mainstream media, but social media is also seen in cahoots with the Indian nation state. We need to reject such censorship that becomes complicit with an ongoing humanitarian crisis,” he said.

A screenshot of Facebook's apology for removing Anand's post. ─Courtesy Dibyesh Anand
A screenshot of Facebook's apology for removing Anand's post. ─Courtesy Dibyesh Anand

“Kashmir is the way. Kashmir is the future. Let a thousand Kashmiris bloom,” wrote Kuffir Nalgunduwar, an Ambedkarite activist and poet, who was also blocked by Facebook.

Dr Peer Suhail Masoodi, a development practitioner and policy analyst based in Srinagar, has also criticised Facebook’s policy of censoring pro-Kashmir posts. “Mark Zuckerberg is the new cyber police chief of Jammu and Kashmir. Your FB posts are being monitored. Any “anti-government” post will be immediately removed and you’ll be booked under Facebook Violation Act — FVA,” Masoodi wrote on his timeline.

“Facebook was seen as an independent and credible platform for connecting people, and sharing ideas of critical importance. However, the removal of posts and blocking FB profiles of those who have criticised Indian policies in Kashmir not only makes people apprehensive to express their opinions freely on Facebook, but, more importantly, Facebook has lost the credibility of providing an alternative platform for discussion,” Dr Masoodi told Dawn.

─Photo by Syed Shahriyar
─Photo by Syed Shahriyar

In a statement to The Guardian, Facebook said: “There is no place on Facebook for content that praises or supports terrorists, terrorist organisations or terrorism. We welcome discussion on these subjects but any terrorist content has to be clearly put in context which condemns these organisations and or their violent activities. Therefore, profiles and content supporting or praising Hizbul Mujahideen and Burhan Wani are removed as soon as they are reported to us. In this instance, some content was removed in error, but this has now been restored.”

Pakistan’s digital-rights advocate Nighat Dad, when asked by Dawn to comment said, “Facebook has come under fire in the past for appearing to arbitrarily remove ‘objectionable’ material, going by very general definitions. Regarding the controversy regarding Kashmir, the company has said that there ‘is no place on Facebook for content that praises or supports terrorists, terrorist organisations or terrorism. We welcome discussion on these subjects but any terrorist content has to be clearly put in context which condemns these organisations and or their violent activities’.”

─Photo by Syed Shahriyar
─Photo by Syed Shahriyar

She added that in the context of Kashmir, it is possible that Facebook is going on complaints made by individual Facebook users, and has exercised the decision to remove the pages in that context. This controversy highlights an ongoing problem with Facebook, in that in an attempt to placate its user base, it makes censorship or removal decisions in a scattershot manner, only to reverse those decisions later.

At the moment, the only way to register a complaint is to report a post, or photo, in order to get it removed — this takes place if the content is deemed to be violating Facebook terms and conditions, ironically hate and harassment by extremists group against progressive Pakistanis is rarely taken down by FB.

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2016