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SC orders J&K admin to review internet shutdown orders in 7 days, says right to internet is part of free speech and expression

Supreme Court of India
Credit: Aditi Agrawal

In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court today declared that the right to internet is also part of freedom of speech and expression, and an indefinite ban on the internet is an abuse of power. The court ordered that the Jammu & Kashmir administration to review all restrictive orders within seven days, reported the Indian Express. Free speech and expression through the internet is a part of Article 19(1)(a) and restrictions on it should be in accordance with the restrictions on this right, the court said. Internet services have been suspended in Jammu & Kashmir for 158 days the longest shutdown in India.

The bench of justices NV Ramana, R Subhash Reddy and BR Gavai had heard a series of petitions on the matter, including those filed by Kashmir Times exeuctieditor Anuradha Bhasin and Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. The court had reserved its order on the matter on November 27, 2019.

  • Orders to be made public: The court also ordered that all restrictive orders placed in the state, since the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year, are to be made public, so that they can be challenged in a court of law, such as the Jammu & Kashmir High Court and the Supreme Court.
  • Internet shutdowns subject to judicial review: Suspending the internet should be reviewed hereon, such suspension can only be for a limited time period and is subject to judicial scrutiny, the court said, on a batch of petitions challenging the restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir. The test of proportionality needs to be satisfied. This freedom can only be restricted after relevant factors are considered and only if there are no options,” the court said. The internet shutdown is applicable only in unavoidable situations, and authorities must explore alternate means before doing that, said bench said.
  • The court also ordered that internet services should be restored in ‘essential services’.
  • Internet suspension without any particular duration and indefinitely is violation of telecom rules, the court observed.
  • Section 144 cannot be used to curb liberty, and can be used only where there is incitement to violence and danger to public safety. The freedom to practice trade and occupations – which are dependent on the internet – is protected under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.

The Central government had justified the continuation of the internet suspension citing national security, and said that these were temporary measures in view of the prevailing situation in the region.

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