India, the world’s largest democracy, tops the global list of internet shutdowns

(CNN) India has imposed the most internet shutdowns in the world in 2022, a new report reveals, in another blow to the country’s commitment to free speech and access to information, critics say.

Of 187 internet shutdowns recorded around the world, 84 took place in India, according to the report released Tuesday by Access Now, a New York-based advocacy group that tracks internet freedom.

This is the fifth consecutive year that the world’s largest democracy, with more than 1.3 billion people, has topped the list, the group said, raising concerns about India’s commitment to internet freedom under its current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The responsibility of Indian states for the majority of shutdowns worldwide is impossible to ignore and poses a major problem in its own right,” the report said. “Authorities in regions across the country are increasingly resorting to this repressive measure, imposing lockdowns on more people in more places.”

Almost 60% of internet shutdowns in India last year occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir, where authorities cut access due to “political instability and violence,” according to the report.

In August 2019, the BJP revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two federally administered areas, bringing the region closer to New Delhi’s control. The unprecedented decision sparked protests, and the government has since frequently restricted communication lines, a move rights groups say aims to quash dissent.

Aside from Jammu and Kashmir, authorities in the states of West Bengal and Rajasthan imposed more closures than other Indian regions in response to “protests, communal violence and audits,” according to the report.

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India has the second largest digital population in the world after China, with more than 800 million internet users. The Internet has become a vital social and economic lifeline for large sections of the population, connecting the remote rural corners of the country to its growing cities.

The disruptions “affected the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours in 2022,” the report said.

Concerns in India

The Access Now report comes at a time when India’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression is under increasing scrutiny.

In January, the country banned a BBC documentary criticizing Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots more than 20 years ago. Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai over the following weeks, citing “irregularities and discrepancies” in the channel’s taxes.

However, government critics were unconvinced, calling the raids “a clear case of vendetta” and accusing the BJP of intimidating the media.

Last week police in New Delhi arrested a senior opposition politician for allegedly “disturbing harmony” after he misrepresented the prime minister’s middle name, a move Modi’s critics likened to “dictatorial behavior”.

People are lining up to cast their ballots for the first phase of India’s April 2019 general election.

In recent years, amid widespread fears of mob violence, the government has repeatedly justified blocking internet access with safeguarding public safety.

While the country was in the midst of general elections in 2019 with more than 900 million eligible voters, some Indians were denied internet access for days as they prepared to vote.

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Authorities said the lockdown was “a precautionary measure to maintain law and order,” leading many critics to question India’s grand display of political freedom during the world’s biggest election.

During a nearly year-long protest by angry farmers in 2021 against controversial new pricing laws, the Indian government blocked internet access in several districts after violent clashes erupted between protesters and police.

Aam Aadmi party supporters attend a demonstration held in Amritsar on August 31, 2021 following clashes between police and farmers.

Some individual shutdowns have been challenged in court, and efforts are underway to change the country’s laws to make such blackouts more difficult to enforce.

rest of the world

Last year saw more internet shutdowns around the world than ever before, Access Now said, prompting the group to stoke fears of “digital authoritarianism” as governments continue the trend.

Aside from India, other countries where the internet went offline in the past year are Ukraine, Iran and Myanmar.

During Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the Kremlin cut internet access at least 22 times by “performing cyberattacks and intentionally destroying telecommunications infrastructure,” according to Access Now.

The Iranian regime responded to protests sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini by imposing 18 lockdowns – a move Access Now described as “a further escalation of its repressive tactics”.

According to the report, seven internet outages occurred in Myanmar, where the junta ousted its democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021. The Southeast Asian country continues to be wracked by violence and instability, while many grapple with fuel, food and basic necessities shortages

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The “military insisted on keeping people in the dark for long periods of time and targeted areas where coup resistance is strongest,” the report said.