India’s love-hate relationship with Free Speech

Amir Ullah Khan and Netheena Mathews

The continuing clampdown on journalists, activists and comedians critical of the government stands in glaring contradiction to the protection it offers to those like Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami. At least  six senior journalists are facing charges for reporting allegations that Delhi police shot a protesting farmer to his death during the violence that erupted on Republic Day. Of the 154 cases of journalists being arrested, interrogated or detained recorded since 2010, 67 of them were in 2020 alone.

India’s rank slipped by two to 142 among 180 countries and territories in the World Press Freedom index in 2020, when compared to the previous year. The country witnessed the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world in 2020. As many as 83 such shutdowns were reported in 2020. The longest of these shutdowns was implemented in Kashmir after Article 370 was abrogated. In little over a month in 2021, the country has already recorded seven internet shutdowns during the farmers’ protests, raising fears this trend may be indicative of a regular response to protests in the near future. Similar internet shutdowns were also witnessed during the Citizenship Act protests.

The heat went up this month. On the one hand, the government threatened Twitter officials with jail terms for refusing to comply with an order to suspend certain accounts linked to the protests. On the other, the BJP’s own bigwigs amplified a baseless YouTube video calling for several leading journalists to be hanged to death. When the video was taken down by the website for violating its policies, BJP’s Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, Kapil Mishra and Suresh Nakhua, among others, came out in the YouTuber’s support.

Delhi Police arrested 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi from Bengaluru over a ‘toolkit’ on farmers’ protests that was shared online, while the government will review a self-regulation toolkit adopted by over the top (OTT) platforms and bring in its own set of guidelines to govern content. The latter comes in the background of several OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime being pulled up for hosting content that allegedly hurts religious sentiments. Some free speech is under threat, while some isn’t. The bias cannot be clearer.

In a climb-down from a fortnight-long stand-off between Twitter and Government of India over the blocking of accounts associated with the farmers’ protests, the microblogging site took down about 97% of the 1,435 accounts flagged by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) for hosting inflammatory content. About 257 of these handles allegedly trended a hashtag on a planned farmers’ genocide in India which the Home Ministry felt could foment violence. The remaining 1,178 were blocked for links with pro-Khalistan and Pakistani elements.

On January 30, a hashtag alleging a farmers’ genocide in India started trending on Twitter. The next day, MEITY issued a directive to the microblogging site on the Home Ministry’s order, seeking to block of over 200 handles for amplifying the hashtag. On February 1, Twitter India blocked a slew of accounts in compliance with the order. These included accounts operated by Kisan Ekta Morcha and Bharatiya Kisan Union-Ekta (Ugrahan) – organisations that are linked to the ongoing farmers’ protests, news magazine The Caravan, and political leaders Jarnail Singh and Preeti Sharma Menon of AAP and Mohammed Salim of the CPI(M), among others. Curiously, Twitter restored some of the blocked accounts later the same day. Miffed with Twitter’s non-compliance, the government then threatened Twitter India officials with seven years’ imprisonment.

On February 2, pop star Rihanna, who has a following of over 101 million, tweeted about the farmers’ protests with a link to a CNN article on internet shutdowns at Delhi’s borders. Soon after, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece and lawyer-author Meena Harris, and British MP Claudia Webbe, among others lent support to the protesters by tweeting about them. The next day, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement urging “celebrities and others” against “the temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments” in what was perhaps an unprecedented response to such tweets. The statement reiterated the government’s account of the events implying vested interests are mobilising international support to destabilise India.

The government’s homegrown flock of celebrity supporters that included leading artistes and sportspersons was also at work at once. A coordinated Twitter campaign with identical posts and the hashtag ‘#IndiaAgainstPropaganda’ came into force in full swing, asking ‘external forces’ not to interfere in India’s internal matters. Even Sachin Tendulkar, whose silence over political matters has been conspicuous in the past, joined in. An online toolkit on the protests tweeted by Thunberg saw the Delhi police swinging into action and registering an FIR against unnamed persons for creating it on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting hatred. Not to be left far behind, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh later said the state’s intelligence department will probe if Indian celebrities were pressured to tweet in support of the central government’s farm laws.

On February 4, MEITY sent Twitter another list of nearly 1,200 accounts, asking it to either suspend or block them in India as it was backed by Khalistani and Pakistani groups. A few days later, Twitter said it had expeditiously reviewed orders and acted on them. Amidst a tense standoff between Twitter and Government of India, reports emerged about the MEITY, MyGov, India Post and CBDT, among others, opening accounts on India’s own desi version of Twitter called Koo. Ministers were quick to endorse the app. Launched in 2020, it is being promoted as an indigenous alternative to Twitter.

It may be recalled here that an unprecedented directive for large-scale blocking of internet content was made in 2012 during the UPA-II regime as well. Unable to halt a sudden exodus of north-east Indian migrants from cities such as Bengaluru to their hometowns over fears of communal violence, the then government issued four directives that sought blocking of about 300 web pages that reportedly hosted inflammatory content. This included blogposts, news articles, Twitter accounts belonging to journalists like Shiv Aroor and Kanchan Gupta, YouTube videos and Facebook posts, among others. Interestingly, Narendra Modi, who was then Chief Minister of Gujarat, had protested the blocking of accounts through a Twitter post.

The cyber cell of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs recently invited volunteers for a programme to identify and report illegal content online to the government. Illegal here refers to content on child pornography, terrorism, radicalisation and other ‘anti-national’ activities, the last of which can be easily used to target government critics in the absence of a legal definition. This programme will be piloted in Jammu, Kashmir and Tripura. The wording is vague, the vigilantes omnipresent and the eco system ripe for this to be misused. We are the world’s largest democracy, as the Honorable PM has underlined several times. However, our over enthusiastic ministries must honour the PM’s sentiment.

Amir Ullah Khan and Netheena Mathews are researchers at Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP), Hyderabad

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