Srinagar :  Social media users in Kashmir are divided over a recent circular issued by district authorities in Kupwara which directed administrators of ‘Whatsapp’ groups disseminating news to get themselves registered within 10 days.

“It is impressed upon all the admins of WhatsApp news groups of the district to get the registration of their WhatsApp news groups in the office of the undersigned within ten days,” a circular, issued by District Magistrate Kupwara R Ranjan on Monday, read.

The circular was issued by the District Magistrate after Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Asgar Samoon, during a meeting to review law and order situation on Monday, directed the operators of social media groups to obtain proper permission from the concerned Deputy Commissioners for posting news.

The authorities had suspended internet services for several days in Kashmir as a preventive measure to curb rumour mongering on social networking sites after five persons were killed in security forces action during violent protests in Handwara and Kupwara towns last week. According to the circular, the District Magistrate of Kupwara also named an officer as the head of the Social Media Centre for registration of the WhatsApp groups.

The officer has been also tasked with keeping a vigil on the activities of these news groups. While holding group administrators responsible for any “irresponsible remarks leading to untoward incidents”, the circular also bars government employees from making remarks or comments on the policies of the government in these groups.

Many of the WhatsApp users here have criticised the government circular but some have come out in support of the decision saying it can help check spread of false and incorrect information, especially during volatile situations like in Handwara last week.      All India Students Association (AISA) condemned the order issued to journalists in Kupwara district for registration of WhatsApp groups. “Such an irrational and dictatorial diktat is unacceptable to say the least. It amounts to censorship and gagging of the voices of journalists,” a statement issued by the AISA said. It said the journalists in Kashmir are already operating under difficult conditions. “With tough work conditions and lack of financial support, journalists today are finding it easy to communicate information to one another through WhatsApp,” the statement said, and demanded that the order be withdrawn.

 However, there are some people who support the directive. “Kashmir is a sensitive place where things can change very fast. So in such a scenario, information going around should be very credible and authentic.

“Irresponsible posts can cause mayhem with lives of the people — as we saw in some cases like Handwara — and also with the economy of Kashmir,” Fayaz Ahmad, a businessman, said.

A senior government official, who did not wish to be named, said the problem starts when false information is spread on these social media groups by people who are “supposedly reliable sources of information”. “We had a case during the Handwara protests where a group administrator, who is a journalist, put the death toll at six.

“He went to the extent of naming a living person as dead. “Now consider the fallout of this post on the family of the injured person and the area where he lives. The place was already on the boil and this incorrect information could have led to more violence,” the official said. The administration wants to curb this kind of irresponsible dissemination of information that can fuel the fire, he added. But others alleged that it was an attack on freedom of expression. “This is a direct attack on freedom of expression. Now the government wants to know even what people share on their WhatsApp groups. Wonder what will follow next!” Sajad Ahmad, a student at Kashmir University, said.

A senior journalist, who is a member of one such news group, said the group administrators are anyway responsible for what is posted in their respective groups.  “To put an official curb is unwarranted and unwanted. There can be minor aberrations but generally journalists in Kashmir, even at district level, are responsible reporters,” he said.

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