Cut off and castigated
Down the decades, people have frequently encountered obstacles for social media access Manipur. Even journalists and media houses have been muzzled. Taking that into account and conducting multiple interviews with a cross-section of the population, the study by Chinmayi SK, Fellow for Open Technology Fund (OTF) dissects the situation.The research report is titled “Those unspoken thoughts: A study of censorship and media freedom in Manipur”, studies information control including curbs on the media and the challenges thrown up before people.
Chinmayi’s study offers an overview of the new trend in suppressing information and dissemination , and curbing freedom of expression. It lays out the impact of the new shift on the general public, media persons and women. The research report noted: “The delicate socio-political situation in Manipur means there are multiple threat vectors for Expression. The number and complexity of the threats have created a chilling effect on Freedom of Expression.”
Chinmayi’s findings show how the shift in information management systems via the new information technology is controlled by State and non-State actors. The study observed “Press freedom continues to be under threat with legal actions such as defamation cases, pressure from the political class adding to the existing restriction that they face in terms of pressures from UGs (Underground Groups) and the Government”.
Apart from the media houses being threatened into publishing or withholding information, the last two years have witnessed the arrest of journalists or social media users in Manipur. In November 2018, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, then a journalist with the local channel, was taken into custody under the National Security Act for a Facebook post, that reportedly used abusive words against the Chief Minister. He was jailed for 12 months.
The study report noted that the arrest of Wangkhem was a watershed moment in the history of censorship in Manipur. Though several people have been arrested under the draconian NSA, this was the first time such an action was taken over someone’s Facebook post in Manipur.
It is not only the media house or media practitioners that are being suppressed but the general public experiences the new phenomenon. The study found that “Internet shutdowns create inconvenience for the women of Manipur. Women reported loss of professional standing and opportunities as a result of them. They also reported facing anxiety and restlessness thus affecting their mental health because of these shutdowns. certain internet activities have led to offline consequences for some women in Manipur, often in the nature of threat to life and security”. Women practice self- censorship to avoid conflict, the report said. In this situation and context, there is a risk for social media users.
Chinmayi’s study observed that usage of social media for expression caused risk to women in Manipur from State and non-State actors. To keep themselves away from threats or trolls, women self-censored themselves or restrict themselves from using social media. The threats they face affect their physical and emotional well-being and in the case of transgender women their identities too.
From the study it can be said that internet services are shut down in Manipur at the drop of a hat. There have been five internet shutdowns between 2015 and 2019. In the aftermath of the issues arising out of the demand for implementation of Inner Line Permit in September 2015, access to the internet was shut down. In December 2016, the internet was shut down following the call for an indefinite economic blockade by the United Naga Council. As the demand for removal of Manipur University’s Vice Chancellor gained momentum in 2018 internet was suspended for a week.
The study raised an important and significant question,do such internet shutdowns have helped in maintaining “law and order”. It stated “Concerns about the need for shutdowns were raised. It remains unclear whether and how internet shutdowns have helped resolve conflict in the State”.
Regarding censorship of information sites the study found that during the period of 2019 January to 2020 January, 167 uniform resource locators in India across five Internet service providers with two networks were blocked. Of them, 84 blocked websites presented in this study fall under the following categories - news media, blogs, file-sharing, religion, human rights, culture, online dating, hate speech, hacking, forums, and military. Some of them were included in the 2006 blocklist issued by the Government of India, following the 2006 Mumbai train bombings; others were included in the 2013 blocklist in response to the IIPM controversy. Additionally, articles covering the 2012 incident of murder of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and violence against Muslims in Assam were blocked.
Most of the responses in the study reveal that people are largely unaware of laws and regulations around internet censorship. The study reported that around 80 percent of the survey respondents reported not knowing which specific laws in Manipur allow for internet censorship. Around 83 percent of respondents reported that they are not aware of the processes that need to be followed when websites are blocked or access to the internet is denied.
Chinmayi’s finding reveals that respondents were unable to specify or provide details about issues they encountered online, such as certain sites they would like to visit but which were no longer available. The study observed that this limited knowledge around blocked or removal of websites suggest that the surveyed group might not understand what a blocked website is or looks like.
A large population, particularly social activists and campaigners use the internet to reach out. The study reported that it often led to threats offline. These threats could be in the form of danger to their lives, livelihoods, and identities. According to the respondents, the threats are often made for political and social posts.
A large majority of the population in Manipur or the North East region of India are largely unaware of these churnings, even as the technology has intruded into their lives.The new shift in information flow perhaps, is too abrupt for the general public to grapple with. Chimayi’s observations and findings are pointers for concern. It should provoke further research on this vast area of information systems, their impact, use or misuse in this crucial period of transition.
The study report will serve as a useful document and a sound background for policy formulation and Information Technology. It is a significant reference point, especially in the post COVID-19 scenario as Manipur struggles to understand the “new normal” in increasingly “a digitised world”.
This article first appeared in The Statesman