Central government will publish internet shutdown orders in Jammu and Kashmir without details

The Central government has informed the Supreme Court that it will publish the orders of the review committee assessing internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir as public information. However, the reasons for the shutdowns will not be disclosed.

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Prompted by the Supreme Court, the Jammu and Kashmir government has agreed on 23 February 2024 to make public its orders reviewing internet shutdowns in the region. The Court clarified that the reasons and deliberations behind these orders do not need to be disclosed. This decision came in response to a plea by the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP), urging the state to comply with the Supreme Court’s guidelines on internet restrictions outlined in the 2020 case of Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India.

On 30 January 2024, the Supreme Court emphasised the need to publish the orders of the Review Committee overseeing internet shutdown directions by the Jammu and Kashmir authorities. The Court stated that while deliberations leading to the shutdown order can be omitted, the order itself needs to be made public.

Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has extended the suspension of internet services in multiple districts of Punjab until 26 February 2024 amid ongoing farmers’ protests. The extended order, under Rule 2 of the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017, enforces a comprehensive ban on all internet services. The MHA cites the need to maintain public order and avert a ‘public emergency’ as the rationale for these restrictions. The affected areas include police stations in various districts, such as Patiala, SAS Nagar, Bathinda, Sri Muktsar Sahib, Mansa, Sangrur, and Fatehgarh Sahib, as outlined in the MHA notification. This update follows the original order issued on 16 February, which suspended internet services until 24 February 2024.

Why does it matter?

The publication of the Review Committee’s orders, albeit without details of deliberations, raises concerns about the effectiveness of these orders in preventing arbitrary internet suspension, which often infringes on people’s freedom of expression. The need for more information on why internet shutdowns are issued also hampers the ability to challenge the constitutionality of such orders in court. Despite the increasing number of internet shutdowns, reports suggest that review committees must review the orders more effectively.

In 2020, in the Anuradha Bhasin case, the Supreme Court laid out guidelines for internet shutdown orders to ensure they do not violate constitutional limits. These guidelines include making internet ban orders public, subjecting them to judicial review, and emphasising the role of the Review Committee in reviewing the legality of such orders. The Court also highlighted that internet shutdowns cannot be imposed under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure without stating material facts for judicial review. These guidelines aim to protect fundamental rights while allowing restrictions that adhere to proportionality, legality, and necessity principles.