In the thick of Handwara mayhem last month which led to five killings, the district magistrate of the district Kupwara Kumar Rajiv Ranjan issued a circular making the registration of all whatsapp news groups mandatory. There was a simultaneous order by the divisional commissioner, Kashmir, Asgar Samoon which called for the operators of social media news agencies “to obtain proper permission from the concerned Deputy Commissioners for posting news on social media news groups along with sources”.
Samoon also reiterated the Ranjan’s order and called on all the group admins of the existing WhatsApp news groups to register themselves at the office of the respective District Magistrates within 10 days.
The twin orders have generated a contentious debate in the state. There are millions of the groups in the state which distribute news and the information around and it is, thus, hardly practicable to register them all. And the most profound of all the concerns; the fallout of the orders on the right to free speech in the state.
Whatsapp is the modern form of conversation, speech. How can it be regulated?” asks the senior advocate Riyaz Khawar.
Khawar said that the orders run afoul of the freedom of speech and the privacy guaranteed under the constitution. “
Khawar added though that the government and the court had only called for the registration of the whatsapp groups and not sought to curb them. He, however, called for the registration of only formal news groups which disseminate news. “You can’t go around seeking registration of all the whatsapp groups. It is like the state breathing down every individual’s neck,” Khawar said.
The orders were issued following the unrest in the state over the killings of five persons – four youth and one elderly woman – in Handwara after an alleged molestation bid on a minor school girl. Soon after the incident, a video statement of the girl denying she had been molested went viral on whatsapp and later on the social sites.
“This circular is ignorant of the Constitutional protection of free speech. Also ignores section 79 of the IT Act,” writes a blogger Irfan Qureshi. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has not been consulted before the order was issued by the authorities”.
“In times of end to end encryption, the Jammu and Kashmir government wants a license of sorts for running a whatsapp group, which is not going to serve any purpose apart from people behind this action getting ridiculed for it,” Qureshi added.
Qureshi also questioned as to how the admins could be held responsible for everything on the group. “Whatsapp admin can add or remove people; they can’t control the content people post on the group,” he wrote.
Some people have highlighted the absurdity of targeting only whatsapp. “What about many other apps that also allow their users to create groups,” said Waseem Ahmad, a student. “Does it mean communication through them doesn’t require registration?”
Noted lawyer Zafar Shah said that he was not aware under which law the government had issued the order. “As a lawyer, I would like to know that under which statute the government has passed this order. And whether there is any law at all which gives government the authority to call for the registration of the whatsapp groups,” Shah said.