MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian activists who rely on social media to share information in times of tension are being frustrated by a wave of internet shutdowns, with 22 sites closed in Kashmir this week alone.
The clampdown in India - only Iraq closes as many sites each year - has hit doctors who treat rural patients via WhatsApp, and silenced journalists covering street protests.
“It impacts crisis response and fuels rumours that can trigger further violence,” said Ramanjit Singh Chima at Access Now, an advocacy group that is backing a global #KeepitOn campaign against the wave of internet shutdowns.
“At the same time, it prevents journalists from freely reporting, and citizens from sharing information.”
Chima said a whole new way of information sharing was hit by the clampdown, citing examples of ordinary people offering shelter to their peers or relief agencies sourcing information from the ground during terror attacks and disasters.
This week, the northern state of Kashmir ordered the shutdown of 22 social media sites, mobile phone message applications and video sites following street protests against alleged abuses by Indian forces.
The ban includes Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, Reddit and YouTube.
The home ministry says shutdowns help check violence.
“Messages and images that are spread through social media platforms during communal tension and ethnic conflicts can lead to such situations spiralling out of control. There is no option but to suspend the internet,” an official said.
Street protests have flared in recent weeks as thousands of Kashmiris vent anger against alleged abuses by Indian forces after a video emerged of a local man tied to the front of an army jeep and used as a human shield.
The video circulated widely on social media, as have images of students throwing stones at security forces.
While Kashmir has often shut mobile internet services during previous times of unrest, banning social media is a first.
“It’s a dangerous trend,” Chinmayi Arun, executive director at advocacy Centre for Communication Governance in Delhi, said.
Besides Kashmir, where shutdowns have sometimes lasted weeks, internet clampdowns have also hit Gujarat, Haryana, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
Few countries rely so heavily on the internet, be it to conduct business, share information or socialise.
India is the world’s largest internet consumer base after China, and a majority of its 450 million subscribers access the internet through a mobile handset.
Along with Iraq, India had the most internet shutdowns in the world last year, according to the U.S.-based Brookings Institution. Economic losses from shutdowns in the year to June 2016 totalled $968 million, the most for any country, it said.
But the clampdown also hurts free speech, denies poorer citizens access to health advice and curtails online educational opportunities, said Mishi Choudhary, legal counsel at advocacy Software Freedom Law Centre in Delhi.
“With an increasing number of services being pushed online, and the preference for a cashless economy, internet shutdowns hurt small businesses and poorer individuals most,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Doctors are cut off from chatting online with patients and are unable to access patient data or seek second opinions on cases, said Lubna Khan, a physician and activist.
“We are unable to provide care when and where it is needed. We are in a pathetic state,” she said.
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.