Srinagar: The social media gag on government employees drew scathing attack from Opposition parties and pro-freedom groups on Wednesday.
The main opposition party, National Conference (NC), termed the “gag order” as aimed at portraying government employees as “terrorists and anti-social elements”.
“It is to cover its own utter and complete failure on both the governance and the political front,” the NC said of the government’s new Statutory Rules and Order (SRO) 525. “The recent social media diktat issued by the government is an obnoxious, tyrannical and unacceptable insult to employees and depicts the regressive mindset of the Mehbooba Mufti government,” the NC said in a statement.
The Congress said the social media gag was “indicative of the dictatorial mindset of the PDP-BJP coalition government”.
“The new anti-people directive of the state government is a direct attack on the freedom of expression and freedom of speech, which is very unfortunate and deserves strong condemnation,” the Congress said.
Terming the new social media policy as “highly undemocratic and arbitrary”, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) sought immediate withdrawal of the “authoritarian notification” to avoid “unrest in the ranks of its employees”.
“The order issued by the state government imposing extensive restrictions on the use of social media by its employees, exposes the dictatorial and regressive mindset of the PDP-BJP coalition government,” the J&K unit of CPI (M) said. “The order has a negative potential to alienate a substantial proportion of the masses.”
Legal experts termed the policy as undemocratic and an attack on freedom of speech. “We have to first see the extent, scope and nature of the restrictions under the new social media policy,” said noted legal expert ZA Shah. “This alone will determine the power of the government to impose restrictions,” he said.
Shah said that a public servant is not just a public servant, but also a citizen. “Therefore, under law, he enjoys freedom and speech and expression like any other citizen. Further, the instructions do not unambiguously specify the nature of issues which qualify as political. The provision is vulnerable to challenge and can be questioned by any public servant affected by it.”
An activist for freedom of speech, Advocate Nasir Qadri said the order is prime facie an infringement of the fundamental rights of a citizen. “This right flouts Part 3 of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, the Supreme Court recently dealt with the same issue of freedom of expression and a larger bench of the SC has broadened the scope of freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)A of the Indian Constitution.”
“This new social media policy needs judicial intervention,” Nasir said.
Former advocate-general of the J&K state, MI Qadri, said that the lawyer community is of the view that the new guidelines are against law.
“Everyone has the right to speech,” Qadri said. “An employee is a citizen like anyone else; he has the right to freedom of speech and the right to make comments on political developments as well as on the policies of government. Why forget that the government employee is a tax payer; why can’t he criticise wrong policies?”
“The order should have been restricted,” Qadri said of the government order on social media use. “There can be additional responsibilities given to employees but the employees enjoy the same right to equality, speech, liberty, association and do not lose them by becoming a government employee.”
The pro-freedom leadership also reacted sharply to the government order. Hurriyat Conference (M) chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said that the new policy is aimed at silencing people. “Ordering gags and threatening punishment to state employees for expressing their opinion on social media completely exposes the aversion to truth or its disclosure by the occupational regime and its unscrupulous local agents!” Mirwaiz wrote on Twitter. “The charade of “normalcy” in Kashmir will continue to be maintained by silencing people through bullets, jails, gags and bans,” he wrote.
JKLF chief Mohammad Yasin Malik termed the order as a “direct attack” on the freedom of speech. “The fascist regime ruling Jammu Kashmir led by Mehbooba Mufti is setting new records of authoritarianism in the name of democracy,” he said.
Following the notification of SRO 525, the J&K government issued another order amending the existing Jammu and Kashmir Government Employees Conduct Rules, 1971.
The government added to sub-rule (3) of Rule 13 the following as sub-rule (4):
“4. No Government employee shall engage in any criminal, dishonest, immoral or notoriously disgraceful conduct on social media which may be prejudicial to the Government. They shall also not use their personal social media accounts for any political activity or endorse the posts or tweets or blogs of any political figure and also shall not use their accounts in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that the Government endorses or sanctions their personal activities in any matter whatsoever. They shall also not post inflammatory, extraneous messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on topic discussion,” reads the amendment order issued on December 26, 2017.