A recent study reveals how periodic curbs on the Internet in Manipur are one in a long line of attempts to suppress freedom of expression in the State
Social and political movements often invite multiple threats to freedom of expression. We know about the curbs imposed on the Kashmir valley; Manipur is another such place. The State faced five Internet shutdowns in the four years between 2015 and 2019: any incident, big or small, has led to a shutdown of mobile Internet telephony. This has become almost as regular an affair as the frequent curfews once imposed on the State.
Over the decades, freedom of expression has been sought to be stifled through various means like diktats on media houses regarding content, ban on local television channels, and even the killing of journalists. Activists, journalists and ordinary people alike are muzzled. The curb on Internet access is one in the long line of such attempts. Chinmayi S.K., a fellow with Open Technology Fund, studied the situation in Manipur, conducting multiple interviews with a cross-section of people. Her report titled ‘Those Unspoken Thoughts: A Study of Censorship and Media Freedom in Manipur’, published earlier this year, offers not only an overview of the new ways of suppressing information, but also shows how the people of Manipur are dealing with the problem.
“There are multiple threat vectors,” the report notes, adding that “the number and complexity of the threats have created a chilling effect”. Threats include cyber-bullying, hacking, trolling, arrests made for FB posts, and so on.
Suppression comes in various forms. Press freedom, for instance, is threatened by legal actions such as defamation cases and pressure from politicians. This is in addition to the restrictions that the media already faces by way of intense pressure from underground groups and the government. Underground Groups (UGs) is a euphemism for militant organisations, which have had a long presence in the Northeast in general and in Manipur in particular.
In the past two years, journalists have been put behind bars and social media users pulled up for their posts. Television journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested under the National Security Act in 2018 for his Facebook posts that criticised the RSS, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After being released in April 2019, he has been arrested again recently on fresh charges of sedition. He continues to be in jail.
Similarly, Veewon Thokchom, a student leader, was arrested in New Delhi in February 2019 for a Facebook post allegedly criticising the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. He was released later on bail.
Ordinary people are also being suppressed. The report focuses on the impact of muzzling on women, who experience anxiety and restlessness from such clampdowns. “Certain Internet activities have led to offline consequences for some women in Manipur, often in the nature of threat to life and security,” the report notes. With the Internet an invaluable professional tool now, shutdowns have disrupted careers: “Women reported loss of professional standing and opportunities as a result of them,” says the report. On the one hand, the State government claims to encourage entrepreneurship through initiatives like Startup Manipur, and on the other, Internet shutdowns curtail opportunities to grow businesses or apply for work.
The report finds that women have begun to practise self-censorship in order to avoid conflict. Since social media use tends to open up considerable risks for women, both from state and non-state actors, they are forced to refrain from social media altogether. The report notes that such woman-centric threats require investigation, and that social media platforms need to take responsibility for making the web a safer space for women.
But have the Internet shutdowns helped maintain law and order, which is their purported aim? The report says, “It remains unclear whether and how Internet shutdowns have helped resolve conflict in the state”.
A respondent feels that unless there is a way to measure the impact, it would be hard to provide a concrete statement. In any case, stopping Internet services does not necessarily prevent communication. Besides, in the absence of other attendant measures from the government to uphold order, shutdowns achieve little effect, with the people returning to the status quo once the gag order is lifted. Protests have been mobilised for decades in Manipur, even before locals had access to the Internet. If anything, Internet shutdowns further anger protesters.
Interestingly, the study reveals that people are largely unaware of the laws and regulations around Internet censorship: around 80% of the respondents confessed to having no knowledge of the specific laws under which they might be booked for alleged online offences. Some 83% said that they are not aware of the processes that need to be followed when websites are blocked or access to the Internet is disabled. A majority of the respondents were not even interested in getting more data on online information dissemination and management.
As it stands now, while Manipur still struggles to understand the digital world, it has already come to terms with the insidious forms of information control. This seems to increasingly be the new normal in Digital India.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Imphal.