India, a country of 1.4 billion people, was engulfed in a deadly second wave coronavirus pandemic. But even as its health care system suffocates and crematoria burn thousands of funeral pyres, its executives are trying to censor the Internet.
Last week the IT Ministry in India ordered Twitter forbids seeing more than 50 tweets in the country. In a few days New York Times,, Wall Street Journal, and Times of India it was reported that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube also withdrew messages criticizing the government. Over the past week ordinary people who run WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds complained threats demanding the closure of them as well as Uttar Pradesh police filed a complaint against a man who asked for medical oxygen for a dying grandfather on Twitter, saying he was “spreading misleading information”. Wednesday post with the hashtag #ResignModi disappeared from Facebook for a few hours. And although the company reinstated it and said the Indian government did not ask it to be censored, it did not have details on why the hashtag was blocked.
These incidents, which occurred within days of each other when criticism of the Indian government reached a fever, underscore the shrinking space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy. How social unrest against a growing increasingly authoritarian government, it has cracked down on social media, one of the last vacancies left for citizens to express their views. New rules have given the government broad powers to restrict content, forcing US technology platforms, which see India as a key market, to find a balance between growth and freedom of speech.
This is not the first time the Indian government has tried to censor speeches on the Internet. In 2012, before Modi came to power, the government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of India ordered ISPs block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those owned by the right.
“But now the frequency and scale of censorship that is required is increasing,” said Apar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation’s digital rights organization, BuzzFeed News. “Current censorship on the Internet is directly related to social criticism of government policy.”
In February the Government of India ordered Twitter is due to remove more than 250 tweets criticizing the government’s protests against the new agricultural laws. Although Twitter has blocked most accounts, it has unblocked those owned by journalists, activists and politicians, despite prison threats from the Indian government.
“Current censorship on the Internet is directly related to social criticism of government policy.”
Over the weekend, India’s IT ministry tried to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document, which it shared with the press and which was accessed by BuzzFeed News.
“[g]overnment welcomes criticism, genuine requests for assistance, as well as proposals in the collective struggle against COVID19, ”the statement reads. “But action needs to be taken against those users who abuse social media during this serious humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes.”
As examples of problematic content, the ministry cited several of the 53 tweets that were ordered to be blocked. There are four tweets calling the coronavirus pandemic conspiracy theory, and four more containing “old and unrelated visual data of patients and corpses”. At least two of these four cases are real examples of misinformation, BuzzFeed News was told fact-checking from Indian outlets Alt News and Newschecker that were reviewing the images.
As an example of how thin the line can be between removing dangerous rumors and censoring political statements, the ministry did not offer an explanation for any other contained guidance. BuzzFeed News’s expertise on the rest of the limited tweets showed that at least some of them appear to be legitimately criticizing the Prime Minister of India. For example, one of the limited tweets belongs to Moloy Gatak, the Minister of the State of West Bengal. He accuses Modi of mismanaging the pandemic and exporting vaccines when India is in short supply.
Neither Gatak nor the IT Ministry responded to requests for comment
One of the restricted messages in India belonged to Pawen Hera, national spokesman for the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The Twitter, which was released on April 12, shows footage from the Hindu religious gathering “Kumbh Mela”, which took place earlier this month, during which millions of people bathed in the river, even as cases of coronavirus infection grew rapidly. Both ordinary Indians and the world press criticized the Indian government for allowing the rally. In his Twitter account, Hera contrasts India’s lack of response to last year’s “Cumbhala” incident, when members of a Muslim congregation were accused of spreading a coronavirus when there were fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases in the country.
“Why was my tweet rejected?” Hera told BuzzFeed News. “This is the answer I need from the Government of India.”
“What laws am I breaking? What rumors am I spreading? Where did I panic? I need to answer these questions, ”said Hera, who posted legal request to the IT and Twitter ministries this week.
“If I don’t hear them, I’ll sue them.”
“If I don’t hear them, I’ll sue them,” he said. “I need legal help to protect my freedom of speech.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts note that the ministry’s note does not provide sufficient justification to order social media platforms to censor messages. “Since when has the government started sending out liquidation reports for the purpose of misinformation?” asked Pratik Xinha, editor of Alt News. “And why are these tweets quoted [out of 53]? “
Social media platforms are not the only places where repression takes place. Over the past few weeks, networks of volunteer-led WhatsApp and Telegram groups have sprung up across the country, stepping up requests for help and giving people access to medical oxygen, rescue drugs and hospital beds. But over the past few days, some of them have disbanded. According to Fr. report on the Indian news site Quint volunteers who run these groups were called by people claiming they were from the Delhi police, asking them to close them.
Delhi Police denied it is, but by then, people were scared. The WhatsApp network, run by more than 300 volunteers, disbanded a few days ago, even when they were not called. “We decided not to take the risk,” said the group’s founder, who wished to remain anonymous, BuzzFeed News. «[I felt] frustration and anger. “
Experts note that one of the biggest problems in this situation is the lack of transparency – both from the government and from the platforms. Last week, Twitter revealed details of an IT department order on Lumen, a Harvard University database that allows companies to disclose reports of extradition to governments around the world. But Facebook, Instagram and Google have not commented on the alleged censorship in one of the largest markets by either the public or BuzzFeed News.
“They didn’t even state it publicly,” Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation said. “The main responsibility for ensuring transparency lies with the government, but the platforms have absolutely not felt transparency.”