Journalists Urge Alternative Strategies as Indian Government Bans SMS and Blocks Websites

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

joins its affiliate the Indian Journalists’ Union (IJU) in urging the Indian

government to reconsider its strategy of  combating rumours that have led to a mass

exodus of people of north-eastern Indian origin, from certain of the country’s industrial

cities.

 

On August 15, as India celebrated the sixty-five year

anniversary of its independence, large numbers of people from the north-eastern

states who have settled in the southern city of Bangalore crowded into the

city’s railway station, seeking passage back home.

 

The following day, a similar exodus occurred from

Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai, despite efforts by government officials and the

police to allay fears. For the most part those fleeing travelled to the city of

Guwahati in Assam state, the economic hub of the eight states collectively known

as “north-eastern India”.

 

On August 16, the Journalists’ Union of Assam (JUA), a

unit of the IJU,  raised a red flag over alarming

rumours being spread and called for the media to act responsibly in its

reporting.

 

According to Geetartha Pathak, president of the JUA,

“A section of the media spread rumours and aired stories that people from

north-eastern India were being attacked in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai”.

 

SMS messages warning of retaliation for sectarian

violence that began in Assam late in July caused mass panic. Four districts of

Assam were gutted by mass violence that still continues, between people of the

Muslim faith – deemed to be illegal immigrants -- and the Bodo tribal community

which claims original ownership of the land. There are concerns that

the violence in Assam may have caused India’s largest internal displacement in

all time.

 

In response, on August 17, the Indian government ordered a

ban on sending SMS messages to more than five recipients. It also issued

notices to internet service providers (ISPs) to block a number of websites deemed

as publishing highly inflammatory content on Assam events.

 

Best available information indicates, the ban

order applies to items including twitter posts, blogs, URL’s and entire websites

which have published content on the recent ethnic violence in Assam. Much of

the content that has been blocked addresses the need for sober and critical

assessment of the images and messages that have been circulating via the web.

 

 Pathak has argued that the bans decreed on SMS and the

blocking of websites, including social media, is an inadequate means of dealing

with a problem started through rumour. “Rather than limiting SMS and blocking

websites and social media, the Government of India should have started a massive

counter campaign against the rumours”,  he

suggests.

 

IFJ Asia Pacific Director Jacqueline Park joins the IJU

and its state unit in urging the Government of India to remove the current

restrictions. “While rumour

and propaganda impede people’s right to the truth, these restrictions serve as

punitive measures which threaten press freedom. Accurate and responsible

journalism requires full freedom of the media”.

 

For further

information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0918

 

The IFJ

represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

 

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