Access to Public Information, Content Regulation / Censorship, Digital Rights, Internet Shutdowns, National Security
SERAP v. Federal Republic of Nigeria
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The High Court of Jharkhand, in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), directed the State Government of Jharkhand to publish all the previous internet shutdown suspension orders on its website. The case concerned a writ petition filed by the Software Freedom Law Center against the internet shutdown orders imposed by the State Government of Jharkhand on multiple occasions, wherein the State Government also failed to publish the order giving the reasons for the internet shutdowns. The Court held that while the internet shutdown suspension orders imposed by the State Government were not at fault, however, the Respondents should have published the order on their website, proving the reasonable rationale behind the suspension order. Furthermore, the Court noted that any order passed for internet suspension in the future must comply with the guidelines provided by the Supreme Court of India in the cases Foundation of Media Professionals (2020) and Anuradha Bhasin (2020).
Between February and June 2022, the State Government of Jharkhand issued three Internet Suspension Orders on February 7, June 10, and June 6. These frequent Internet shutdowns prompted the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) to file a public interest litigation. In their petition, SFLC sought direction from the Court to the State Government to publish the Internet Shutdown Orders on its official website. Additionally, SFLC sought to overturn these orders and obtain access to all the review proceedings and decisions made by the State’s Review Committee concerning the Internet shutdowns that occurred on February 11, June 10, and June 7, 2022. Furthermore, SFLC also prayed for a directive that would require the State Government to adhere strictly to the guidelines established by the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, (2020).
Chief Justice Sanjaya Kumar Mishra and J. Ananda Sen issued the order. The primary issue before the Court was whether the Internet shutdowns imposed by the State Government were constitutional or not.
The Petitioner contended that the internet shutdown imposed by the State Government should be quashed, as the State Government failed to adhere to the guidelines of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, (2020), wherein the Court held that the internet shutdown order should be reviewed by the Review Committee, and a copy of the suspension order must be uploaded on the website (publicly accessible).
The State Government contended that on February 6, 2022, the Home Secretary, the Government of Jharkhand, was informed that some incidents had taken place in certain regions of the State which might lead to a breach of public order. Thus, in view of the emergent situation, the internet suspension was ordered as a necessary means to maintain public order in the Districts of Hazaribagh, Giridih, Chatra, Koderma, and Ramgarh, and accordingly, internet services in the aforesaid five districts were temporarily suspended for 2 days. The State Government further contended that the primary objective was to “prevent the use of the internet to spread rumors and fake information, which could lead to a disturbance of law and order, by virtue of the power conferred under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 read with sub-rule (2A) of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Amendment) Rules, 2020.” Similarly, internet services were suspended for a few hours on two other occasions. [para. 2]
The High Court observed that the suspension of internet services for the said periods by the State Government cannot be found fault with; however, the State Government should have notified the orders suspending the internet services on their website at the appropriate time, as per the directions given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Anuradha Bhasin (2020). [para. 3]
The Court disposed of the PIL with a direction to the State Government to strictly adhere to the guidelines of the Supreme Court given in Anuradha Bhasin, (2020) and the Foundation for Media Professions v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, (2020) in future Internet shutdown incidents. Furthermore, the Court directed the State Government to upload all the previous internet shutdown suspension orders to its website. [para. 4]
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Ruling mandated that the State Government of Jharkhand publish all previous internet shutdown suspension orders on its website and comply with the guidelines set by the Supreme Court of India in the cases of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, (2020) and Foundation for Media Professions v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir (2020) for any future internet suspension orders. While the Court acknowledged the validity of the internet shutdowns imposed by the State Government in specific instances, it emphasized the importance of transparency and public accessibility in such decisions. This ruling enhances the principles of freedom of expression by promoting transparency and accountability in the implementation of internet shutdowns, ensuring that the reasons for such actions are publicly available, while also affirming the constitutional right to information and expression.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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