India, a country with 1.4 billion people, has been hit by a second deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But even as their health system draws breath and their crematoria burn with thousands of funeral homes, their leaders struggle to censor the internet.
Last week, India’s IT ministry blue Twitter to block more than 50 tweets from being viewed across the country. Days later, the New York Times, u Wall Street Journal, and the Times of India he reported that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube had also dropped posts criticizing the government. Over the past week, ordinary people who run WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds have complained of demanding threats to stop them, and of police in the state of Uttar Pradesh he made a complaint against a man who asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming he was “spreading misleading information.” Wednesday, posts with the hashtag #ResignModi disappeared from Facebook for a few hours. And even though the company reinstated it and said the Indian government did not ask for censorship, it did not provide details as to why the hashtag was blocked.
These incidents – occurring in a few days one after the other when criticism of the Indian government had a fever point – highlight the shrinking space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy. As well as social unrest against an increasingly authoritarian government growing up, it has taken over social media, one of the last free spaces left for citizens to express their opinions. New regulations they have given the government great powers to limit content, forcing American technical platforms, which count India as a key market, to find a balance between growth and free expression.
This is not the first time an Indian government has tried to censor the speech online. In 2012, before Modi came to power, the government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) blue Internet service providers to block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to right-wing people.
“But now, there is an increase in the frequency and scale of censorship that is being demanded,” Apar Gupta, director of the organization for digital rights Internet Freedom Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “India’s current censorship on the Internet is directly linked to social criticism of government policies”
In February, the government of India blue Twitter for dropping more than 250 tweets criticizing how the government handled protests over the new agricultural laws. Although Twitter has blocked most accounts, it has unblocked those belonging to journalists, activists and politicians, despite threats in prison from the Indian government.
“India’s current censorship on the Internet is directly linked to social criticism of government policies”
Over the weekend, India’s IT ministry tried to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document that it shared with the press, and which was accessed by BuzzFeed News.
U “[g]overnment welcomes criticism, genuine requests for help and suggestions in the collective fight against COVID19, “the note says.” But it is necessary to take action against those users who abuse social networks during this serious humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes. ” .
The ministry cited a handful of the 53 tweets it ordered to be blocked as examples of problematic content. There are four tweets calling the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory, and four others containing “old and unrelated visuals of patients and corpses.” At least two of these four cases are real examples of misinformation, fact-checkers from Indian outlets Alt News and Newschecker who examined the images at BuzzFeed News.
In one example of how thin the line between the elimination of dangerous rumors and the censorship of political expression can be, the ministry did not offer explanations for any other ordered content. A BuzzFeed News review of the rest of the restricted tweets showed that at least some of them seemed to make legitimate criticisms of the Indian prime minister. One of the restricted tweets, for example, belongs to Moloy Ghatak, a minister of state of West Bengal. He accuses Ways to mismanage the pandemic and export vaccines when there is a shortage in India.
Neither Ghatak nor the IT ministry responded to requests for comment
One of the limited tweets in India belonged to Pawan Khera, national spokesman for the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The tweet, published on April 12, shows photos of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious gathering held earlier this month during which millions of people bathed in a river even as coronavirus cases were growing rapidly. Both the common Indians and the global press have criticized the Indian government for allowing the meeting. In his tweet, Khera contrasts India’s lack of reaction to the Kumbh Mela with an incident last year when members of a Muslim rally were accused of spreading the coronavirus when the country had less than 1,000 confirmed cases. .
“Why was my tweet withheld?” Khera told BuzzFeed News. “That is the answer I need from the government of India.”
“What laws do I violate? What rumors do I spread? Where have I caused panic? These are the questions I need to answer,” said Khera, who sent a legal application to the IT ministry and Twitter this week.
“If I don’t hear them answer, I’ll take them to court.”
“If I don’t hear from them, I will take them to court,” he said. “I need legal help to protect my freedom of speech.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts said the ministry’s note did not provide sufficient justification for ordering social media platforms to censor posts. “Since when has the government started sending suppression notices for misinformation?” asked Pratik Sinha, editor of Alt News. “And because only these tweets were quoted [out of 53]? “
Social media platforms have not been the only places to see a crackdown. Over the past few weeks, volunteer networks of WhatsApp and Telegram groups have amplified the reasons for help, and gained access to medical oxygen, life-saving drugs, and hospital beds have sprung up across the country. But in recent days, some of them have melted away. According to a report on the Indian news website Quint, volunteers leading these groups have received calls from people claiming to be from Delhi Police asking them to stop.
The Delhi Police negatu this, but since then, people have been scared. A network of WhatsApp groups managed by more than 300 volunteers dropped out days ago even though they did not receive a call. “We decided not to take the opportunity,” the group’s founder, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “[I felt] frustration and anger. “
Experts have said that one of the biggest problems in this situation is a lack of transparency – both from the government and from the platforms. Last week, Twitter revealed details of the IT minister’s order on Lumen, a Harvard University database that allows companies to disclose removal notices from governments around the world. healthy. But Facebook, Instagram, and Google did not comment on the alleged censorship in one of their largest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News when asked.
“They haven’t even released a public statement about this,” Gupta told the Internet Freedom Foundation. “The primary duty of transparency lies with the government, but there has been absolutely no transparency from the platforms.”