ONE of the singular characteristics of a country’s drift towards autocracy is an increasing curtailment of citizens’ access to sources of information and communication. When the flow of diverse opinions and ideas is restricted, state propaganda is allowed free rein.
The findings in a report by an advocacy group working on a free and open internet, and a global coalition that tracks internet shutdowns across the world, gain heightened relevance in the context of recent regional developments.
According to the document, India was responsible for 134 out of 196 internet shutdowns across the world in 2018 — a whopping 67pc of the total. The country heads the list of deliberate shutdowns since 2015: that, significantly enough, is only one year after Narendra Modi, no champion of democratic ideals, first became prime minister.
Consider the frequency of shutdowns and the signs of an unravelling democracy become even clearer.
In 2018, as per the report, there were twice as many internet shutdowns in India as in 2017 and nearly three times that in 2016. The tactic was employed more often in India-held Kashmir and the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra than in 22 other states combined; IHK is currently enduring its 53rd shutdown. (A recent Stanford University study found that 47pc of shutdowns that occurred last year targeted IHK.) Asia and Africa account for the most shutdowns worldwide; Pakistan is a distant second after India with 12 such events.
The fact that governments, even ostensibly democratic ones that espouse the right to freedom of speech and information, acknowledge the shutdowns less than 40pc of the time illustrates an inherent and growing tendency towards authoritarianism.
When states do seek to justify such actions, the most common pretexts according to the report are “public safety, ‘fake news’ or hate speech and related violence, national security, and school exams”. More often than not, however, these stated justifications — most of them ostensibly for the public’s own ‘good’ — are a fig leaf to suppress coverage of protests and prevent human rights abuses from coming to light.
Despotic governments indeed have much to fear from the internet — after all, Twitter and Facebook help propel the discontent in the Middle East into what became the Arab Spring. In IHK, previous internet shutdowns as well as the continuing communications blackout that encompasses internet, mobile and telephone services jive perfectly with a government determined to crush the Kashmiris’ freedom struggle through brute force.
Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2019