More than half of those shutdowns were recorded in Kashmir as India leads the Access Now list for a fifth consecutive year.
Authorities last year shut down the internet at least 187 times in a record 35 countries – the highest number ever in a single year. India leads the global list with 84 shutdowns, 49 of them recorded in Indian-administered Kashmir.
These were the findings of a report released on Tuesday by digital rights watchdog Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition, which said governments are using internet shutdowns as “weapons of control and shields of impunity”.
India – labelled “the biggest offender” – led the watchdog’s list for a fifth consecutive year. It was, however, the first time since 2017 that India saw fewer than 100 internet shutdowns, according to the report.
We documented 187 #InternetShutdowns across 35 countries — the highest number of countries ever recorded by the #KeepItOn coalition in a single year. pic.twitter.com/gQzIUaYFo2
— Access Now (@accessnow) February 28, 2023
“Authorities disrupted internet access at least 49 times in [Indian-administered] Kashmir due to political instability and violence, including a string of 16 back-to-back orders for three-day-long curfew-style shutdowns in January and February 2022,” the report said.
In 2021, about 80 percent of all shutdowns in India were in the disputed Himalayan region, compared with 58 percent in 2022, it added.
Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, who control parts of it. A decades-old popular rebellion against New Delhi’s rule on the Indian side has seen one of the world’s highest deployments of security forces in the region.
Since 2019 when India’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, scrapped Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status, the region has witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on residents and the imposition of laws and policies which critics say are aimed at marginalising and oppressing the country’s only Muslim-majority region.
Srinivas Kodali, digital rights activist and researcher with the Free Software Movement of India, told Al Jazeera that internet shutdowns are happening in India because the government can afford to block Indian-administered Kashmir out.
“It is a form of repression. The government is telling people that unless you toe the line, you will not be allowed to be part of a normal world,” he said.
Kodali said internet shutdowns are also a form of “economic blockade”.
“We have heard so many stories about how shutting down the internet in Kashmir takes away people’s right from taking part in any trade and commerce online. It is not just about speech, it is also economic in nature. If it was just about the speech, the government has enough censorship powers,” he said.
“So, the suppression that the government is doing with the internet in India is not just a form of censorship but also a form of economic blockade. It hurts people badly. It is not just that people are being censored and silenced, it affects them economically.”
The other Indian regions mentioned in the Access Now report included the West Bengal (7) and Rajasthan (12) states – both governed by political parties opposed to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The authorities in those states responded to “protests, communal violence, and exams with disruptions that impacted the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours in 2022,” said the report.
Other nations that saw a large number of internet shutdowns included Iran, Myanmar, Russia and Ethiopia.
“In 2022, under authoritarian regimes and in democracies, powermongers accelerated their use of these callous tactics, disrupting the internet to fuel their agendas of oppression – manipulating narratives, silencing voices and ensuring cover for their own acts of violence and abuse,” said Felicia Anthonio, the #KeepItOn campaign manager at Access Now, in a statement.