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Manipur High Court says mobile internet ban affects access to justice

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As violence continues in some parts of Manipur, the High Court on Friday said that the government cannot carry on with the mobile internet ban in the entire northeastern state, as the internet services formed a part of the right to free speech of residents, under Article 21 of the Constitution. 

The Manipur High Court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the ongoing statewide internet ban. The High Court was told that the state has extended its mobile internet ban till December 3, excluding the areas where it has been previously lifted. 

The division bench comprising Chief Justice Siddharth Mridul and Justice Golmei Gaiphulshillu Kabui called up the state government for not entirely complying with earlier orders for restoration of internet services in areas which have not been affected by the ethnic violence in the state.

The bench stated that even though they are permitting the government to impose reasonable restrictions in accordance with the law, they cannot obliterate the right. Questioning why the services cannot be restored, the bench observed that except for a few areas, the northeastern state is by and large peaceful. 

It further noted that while it was cognizant of the national security implications of restoring internet services in affected areas, the rights of those living in other areas of the state would have to be considered as well. It also maintained that nobody could deny that internet services in today’s time were a part of freedom of speech, albeit with reasonable restrictions.

Previously, a coordinate bench had ordered the state to start operationalising Manipur’s mobile towers, on a trial basis, in all districts, which had not been affected by the ethnic violence. The coordinate bench had also ordered the state to consider and inform the Court about the possibility of restoring internet services to the Greater Imphal area.

Mentioning its concerns, the Court stated that the absence of internet services was negatively affecting the dispensation of justice in Manipur. It remarked that video conferencing facilities existed in such cases to allow litigants to appear before court and alert it of areas which needed the court’s intervention.

The Court observed that the present litigation was not adversarial and that the petitioners did not want to undermine national security, but the concerns over the rights of the people of the state had to be taken into account. Consecutively, it sought a detailed status report from the state on its orders pertaining to the restoration of internet services in areas of Manipur which were unaffected by the ethnic violence.

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