Residents in Indian-administered Kashmir experienced more internet shutdowns and restrictions than any other region in 2022, including Iran and Russia, a new report found.
More than a fifth of all web blackouts took place in Kashmir, according to Surfshark, a virtual private network company headquartered in Lithuania.
Its global report on internet censorship in 2022 — released mid-January — found 32 countries were hit by a total of 112 restrictions. Nearly all came during times of protest or unrest.
Kashmir ranked alongside Russia — where Moscow moved to cut access to social media and news amid its invasion of Ukraine; Iran, where blocks came amid mass protests that started in September; and India, where Surfshark documented cuts in service at times of unrest.
Overall, Asia led the world for internet disruptions, accounting for 47% of all global cases. An estimated 4.2 billion people experienced internet censorship throughout the year, Surfshark found.
The company’s Internet Censorship Tracker analyzes reports from the news media and digital rights organizations such as Netblocks and Access Now, and collects data from social media companies to document cases.
Surfshark spokesperson Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske told VOA that in Kashmir, the internet was shut down for a total of 456 hours in 2022. “All were cases of full internet restrictions on a local level,” she said.
Kashmir has experienced restricted and blocked internet regularly since 2019, when Indian authorities revoked the region’s special autonomous status.
Data from the Home Department of Jammu and Kashmir show 49 internet suspension orders were issued last year.
Authorities have said the blocks were intended to prevent the spread of “misinformation and maintain public order” in the wake of security-related incidents and political unrest in Kashmir.
But local journalists and analysts have said the blocks are also used to prevent critical reporting in the region.
In its 2022 report Suspension of Telecom/Internet Services and Its Impact, India’s parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology said that guidelines on internet blocks needed to be established and noted that no database currently exists in the country to track such orders.
The Surfshark report says that internet censorship can result in “damaging and dangerous consequences” and is an “attack” on freedom and democracy.
“When people are cut off from the internet, they can’t speak up for themselves, so it’s up to the people who have free and undisturbed internet access to let the world know about what’s happening,” Racaityte-Krasauske said. “We want our [tracker] to help raise awareness on this troubling issue and build international pressure to stop such policies.”
Journalists in Kashmir have previously told VOA that the communication blocks — along with new media policies imposed since 2019 — make it hard to cover breaking news and get access to information or official responses. They added that the outages ultimately foster an atmosphere where misinformation and rumors flourish.
The region’s longest internet shutdown lasted from Aug. 5, 2019, to Jan. 25, 2020: the months after Delhi revoked the region’s status.
Independent journalist Sumayyah Qureshi, told VOA that the 2019 shutdown made it difficult to report on what was happening inside the region at that time.
“I am sure if we had internet, I could have done better work. In the absence of the internet and calling facility, how is one supposed to call up sources or talk to victims or people?” he said.
“I couldn’t read [news] and know what was being published in Kashmir. I couldn’t even read my own stories,” said Qureshi. “The easiest way to muzzle voices is to shut the internet.”
The journalist said such blocks infringe on rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
The internet is a lifeline in an age of globalization, says Uttar Pradesh-based academic Tarushikha Sarvesh.
The assistant professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at Aligarh Muslim University has researched experiences of women in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Many people’s livelihoods are dependent on [the internet], especially in the case of Kashmiri women. We saw that the internet shutdown led to a major loss of livelihood for them and their support system due to adverse effects on their businesses,” Sarvesh said.
The cost of internet shutdowns overall in India was estimated to be $184.3 million in 2022, according to Top10VPN, a global digital privacy and research organization.
The frequent and prolonged shutdowns significantly impacted livelihoods, particularly in business, education, and healthcare. Companies were unable to access online markets, and students were unable to access online resources and attend virtual classes.
One local entrepreneur in Srinagar, Irfan Mushtaq, told VOA that prolonged and frequent shutdowns forced him to close his software development firm and move into a new trade.
Even ordinary users in Kashmir express frustration. One resident, Ajaz Ahmad, told VOA that if the government orders an internet shutdown, they should also instruct the telecom companies not to charge consumers for the services they are unable to use.