The Manipur Home Department notified Order No. H-3608/2/2023-HD-HD  on October 11, 2023 , which restrains the sharing of videos/images depicting acts of violence in Manipur. Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) believes this order infringes fundamental rights, limits journalistic freedom and hampers the public’s access to essential information. We wrote to the Manipur Home Department to reconsider these restrictions, citing constitutional violations and potential dangers to citizens’ safety.

Why Should You Care?

Manipur has been under an information blockade since May 2023. This order strengthens the blockade by severely restricting the essential journalistic freedoms of media and news professionals, as well as the freedom of expression of all residents of Manipur. Further, the circulation of information via visual media equips people to assess their immediate surroundings better and travel safely in their vicinity for access to resources. This order virtually impedes the capacity of a person to receive information pertaining to the violence taking place in their vicinity, and thereby places them in potential danger.

Amidst the ongoing internet blackout, there comes a new restriction

Owing to the ongoing violence in Manipur between communities, the state has been subjected to multiple internet shutdowns in the year 2023. The first shutdown was imposed on May 3, 2023, and the latest internet shutdown order was issued on October 1, 2023, which is still ongoing. Amidst the communication challenges already existing as a result of the blackout, the Government of Manipur decided to issue yet another order that explicitly bars the sharing of videos/images portraying violent incidents in the state which aims to curb violence. IFF argues that this order oversteps constitutional boundaries and jeopardises essential freedoms.

The order prohibits the circulation of any images/videos that depict violent activities, such as causing injury to the body and/or damaging public or private property, via social media platforms, explicitly mentioning WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Though the stated intention of this order is to bring “normalcy” in the State, the order states that the circulation of the above via electronic equipment like mobile phones, computers, tablets etc. or even the possession of such material will result in “appropriate legal action”.

The order mandates that the violation of its provisions will result in the person being “booked and prosecuted”; thereby severely limiting the freedom of expression and by way of not making other citizens aware of a potentially hostile environment, directly contravening the right to life by putting the people in harm’s way.

The order is potentially unconstitutional

We sent a letter to the Commissioner of Manipur (Home) enlisting our concerns and the impact it could have on people’s lives, rights and digital liberties. We highlighted the following, among other, concerns:

  1. Suppression of Legitimate Journalism: This measure could significantly suppress legitimate journalism. By restricting the dissemination of information, it has the potential to severely limit the public’s access to pertinent news and crucial insights. Consequently, it could hinder the public’s ability to gain a comprehensive understanding of the current situation and make informed decisions. Moreover, this restriction could have broader implications for communal violence investigations, where the availability of crucial evidence may be stifled due to limited investigative resources.
  2. Violation of the Right to Free Speech: Beyond its effect on journalism, this measure has serious implications for free speech. It imposes prior restraint by engaging in pre-censorship and effectively prohibiting the sharing of videos or images before these events transpire. This act contradicts Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, which safeguards the right to freedom of speech and expression. This was affirmed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Brij Bhushan vs The State Of Delhi, which found that prior restraint on speech based on presumption is fundamentally unconstitutional. Furthermore, this measure stifles the marketplace of ideas, as limiting discourse can undermine the very foundations of a democratic society.
  3. Overbreadth: The measure’s overbroad language adds another layer of concern. It prohibits the sharing of media content “which may aggravate the law and order situation in the State.” This is notably vague and, when scrutinised, does not fall within the ambit of specific legal provisions under the Indian Penal Code or the Information Technology Act. Further, the Supreme Court, in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, rectified a pre-existing provision that was overbroad and impermissibly restricted free speech, aligning it more closely with constitutional standards.
  4. Violation of Article 21: Finally, the measure is violative of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The punitive consequences listed in this measure serve as a deterrent for the public to share information and be aware, consequently compromising their ability to protect their own lives. The sharing of media content mentioned in the order can be vital for the citizens of Manipur to exercise vigilance in terms of location, time, and the general ambience of areas, thus enabling them to safeguard themselves. In essence, this measure not only hinders access to information but also endangers the lives of the citizens of Manipur.

In conclusion, the Internet Freedom Foundation’s concern over the Manipur government’s recent order reflects a broader debate on balancing security measures with citizens’ constitutional rights. As digital rights become increasingly vital in our society, it is essential to navigate these complexities with careful consideration for individual freedoms.

This article was originally published on Internet Freedom Foundation. 

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