"No law, rule, or regulation allows such overbroad restraint to be instituted on spreading of videos/images/pictures," Radhika Roy, associate legal counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), tells The Quint on the Manipur government's latest order pertaining to the dissemination of content on social media.
The order by the Manipur Home Department issued in the name of the state's governor on Wednesday, 11 October, prohibits sharing or circulating photos and videos that "depict violent activities" on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The circulation of such content through bulk SMS and electronic equipment is also banned.
These restrictions imposed by the Chief Minister N Biren Singh-led government come in the wake of a viral seven-second video which purportedly shows a Kuki-Zomi man being burned to death. The video, which dates back to 4 May – a day after the ethnic clashes began in the state – only surfaced last week.
So, going forward, what are the likely consequences of such an order? The Quint speaks to legal experts who decode whether it's in line with the Indian Constitution.
What Does the Order Say?
In its order, the Manipur government argued that the spread of photos and videos depicting violent activities such as bodily harm or injury and damage to property could likely "mobilise mobs of agitators and demonstrators, which may aggravate the law and order situation in the state."
"After a thorough examination of the matter, [the state government] has decided to restrain act of spreading such videos/images/pictures as a positive step towards bringing normalcy in the State," the order read.
The order states that anyone who violates the restrictions will be booked without any exception. Additionally, it declares that those found "misusing technology for inciting violence/hatred" will be dealt with under provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the Indian Penal Code.
Notably, the Manipur government's order also requires people to turn over violent photos and videos that they may possess to the nearest Superintendent of Police.
Meanwhile, the internet shutdown in Manipur was also extended on Wednesday till 16 October.
"There is apprehension that some anti-social elements might use social media extensively for transmission of images, hate speech, and hate video messages inciting the passions of the public which might have serious repercussions for the law and order situation," the internet shutdown order read.
Manipur has been plunged into an internet blackout for the last five months, which has reportedly had a chilling effect on the livelihoods and educational plans of people in the state. In September, the state's chief minister had lifted the internet ban – only for it to be re-imposed four days later.
How Do the Restrictions Infringe on Free Speech?
While the Manipur government may argue that restrictions on the sharing of violent content is needed to maintain public order, experts sounded the alarm on potential violations of one's right to free speech and expression.
"The order has been legally substantiated with reference to "relevant provisions of the Information Technology Act & Rules and IPC." However, it is pertinent to note that no law, rule or regulation allows such overbroad restraint to be instituted on spreading of videos/images/pictures," IFF's Radhika Roy tells The Quint.
"[Legal] provisions relating to sedition (whose operation has been stayed by the Supreme Court), hurting religious sentiments cannot be stated to be adequate to allow such orders," she says.
Affirming that the Manipur government's restrictions were sweeping in nature, Roy said, "While the order notes that images/videos must pertain to depiction of violent activities that may aggravate the law and order situation in the state, it also notes that anybody who is merely in possession of such content must approach the nearest police station."
On the same note, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) co-founder Pranesh Prakash says, "While curbing incitement to violence by using images depicting violence to people and property is certainly permissible, it wouldn't be permissible to deem all circulation of images depicting violence to people and property to automatically amount to incitement to violence."
"To judge if curbing of the freedom of expression of citizens is necessary for the maintenance of public order, we have to check whether the restrictions are 'reasonable' under Article 19(2) of our Constitution," he added.
But is the Manipur government's order constitutionally valid?
"If this order is amended to target only such use of images and text that amounts to incitement to violence or discrimination or hostility, then it would be in line with constitutional requirements," Prakash opined.
He also pointed out that the "government has a solemn duty to prevent violence and incitement to violence."
Will These Restrictions Affect Reporters on the Ground?
"This has a terrifying impact on press freedom because it directly affects mediapersons who are currently situated in Manipur. While possession does not seem to be expressly a problem, it does problematise sharing – which is the core of a journalist's work," IFF's Radhika Roy said.
"It will criminalise journalism and inhibit their ability to record human rights violations," she added.
"The lack of information in the order also gives rise to the possibility of digital devices of journalists being seized and searched without their consent, thereby perpetuating even more violations of fundamental rights, such as right to privacy and right against self-incrimination," Roy said.
Prakash also batted for the circulation of such content to be allowed for "purely journalistic purposes."
The Horrors of Manipur: A Timeline
Manipur has been ensnared in recurring violence since ethnic clashes first erupted in the northeastern state on 3 May 2023. In response, the state government went on to impose what became the second-longest internet shutdown in the country.
Here's a look at the sequence of events.
3 May: Internet services have been completely shut down in Manipur
18 July: A video showing two Kuki-Zomi women being paraded naked and sexually assaulted surfaces, more than two months after the incident took place.
23 September: The internet ban in the state is lifted.
25 September: Photos of the bodies of two Meitei students emerge online. They had been missing since 6 July.
26 September: Amid massive student-led protests, Manipur government reimposes the internet shutdown that had been lifted just days earlier.
28 September: Manipur CM Biren Singh's empty house is targeted by a mob, though security forces foil the attempt.
8 October: A purported video showing a Kuki-Zomi man being burned to death starts to circulate.
11 October: Manipur government cracks down on circulation of violent content.
What remains unclear right now is why the state government has doubled down with the latest restrictions given that an internet ban is already in place. "I personally believe that it is an attempt to demonstrate that 'something' is being done to prevent the dissemination of such content. That the state is not a sitting duck. It also seems like an attempt to shield the state from public outcry at its failure in maintaining law and order," Roy says.