The District Magistrate of Kishtwar, Angrez Singh Rana, has asked admins of all WhatsApp groups operating in this far-off hilly area of Jammu and Kashmir to seek registration with his office within 10 days. He has warned that otherwise, the admins would be liable for action under the Information Technology Act, Ranbir Penal Code, the cyber crime law, any other law in force at the time of the violation, plus the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The order follows a report by Kishtwar SSP Abrar Choudhary that WhatsApp groups were “circulating rumours, false information and unconfirmed or baked information”. “While the freedom of expression through social media is important, the same comes with a responsibility and reasonable restrictions,” says the DM’s order. “Therefore, social media group administrators with the ownership of the groups should be ready to bear this responsibility.”
The admin shall undertake to provide details of all group members, including those living abroad, and present himself before authorities when called regarding any information or image or audio or video, shared on the WhatsApp group. The order also asks admins to report any post or upload that can lead to trouble to the nearest police station.
Rana told The Sunday Express that Kishtwar was a “sensitive area” and circulation of rumours and objectionable material on WhatsApp groups was leading to a wedge between communities and resulting in a law and order problem. “It is not a curb on freedom of expression, but just a sort of warning to admins and their group members to be cautious while uploading any material,” he said.
SSP Chowdhary said they had noticed “all sorts of objectionable material showing militants holding guns and anti-India demonstrations” getting uploaded on social media. “This needs to be checked.” On June 16, Kishtwar had been tense following rumours of ‘Azadi’ slogans being raised during an Eid procession. Police had acted swiftly to deny the claims.
In 2013, WhatsApp posts about alleged pro-Pakistan slogans being raised during an Eid procession had led to violence in Kishtwar, with the PSO of a local BJP leader, Sunil Sharma, accused of being involved. Three people had been killed and many injured in the violence. Since then, there have been other instances of tension in the town following posts on social networking sites, including circulation of a morphed video two-three years ago.
The DM’s order requires admins “to keep a screen shot/proof of any offensive/illegal/derogatory/defamatory/ inflammatory information/images/audio/video”. “The admin will have to undertake that “if found guilty of any violation, his group/page is liable to be derecognized and he/she will face consequences as per established law.”
The order adds that when admins seek registration to form a WhatsApp group, dealing with news or otherwise, the DM “will seek a report from SSP concerned about the antecedents including character of the applicant, besides seeking a clearance report from the state CID”.
The order also asks admins to include only those members in their group who are personally known to them. “If any statement is made by a member which is fake/baseless and has the potential to cause religious disharmony, or rumour, the admin must deny it on the group and forthwith remove the member who has uploaded the same… Such a post/upload must also be reported to the nearest police station immediately by the group admin so that action under law can be taken against such a member… (In case of) inaction, the group admin shall be considered to be in connivance with the offender and shall be liable for action under law.”
Also expressing concern over the spread of fake news and rumours through other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc, Rana’s order lays down the process of registration for admins, who have to apply to the in-charge district NIC (National Informatics Centre) officer on a prescribed performa, including personal details such as qualification, Aadhaar number and the purpose of forming such a group.
The application will have to include a declaration that he/she shall be personally responsible for whatsoever is uploaded by him/her or any of the group participants. Chowdhary’s report that led to the DM’s order said “a large number of WhatsApp news groups and also WhatsApp groups with other names have come up in the district who, on occasions, are transmitting and circulating rumours, false information and unconfirmed or baked information in the form of videos, audios or textual material resulting therein every apprehension of law and order problem and the district administration as such has to face ugly embarrassing situations”.
In 2016, the district administration of Kupwara, in Kashmir, had similarly directed WhatsApp groups to seek registration with his office. He had also stated that government employees cannot upload material criticising policies of the government. The order had drawn flak, and till date, no WhatsApp group has turned up for registration before it.