A BBC documentary highlights growing social-media censorship in India

Last weekend, the Indian government ordered YouTube to remove clips from a BBC documentary. It sent a similar order to Twitter, telling that platform to remove any tweets that featured links to those clips and pointing to more than fifty specific posts that had done so. The documentary, called India: The Modi Question, covers, in part, a series of violent riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. More than a thousand people died—most of them Muslims. The documentary features quotes from UK government correspondence that described the riots as having had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing” and held Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, “directly responsible.” Modi is now India’s prime minister.

According to the orders from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the clips from the documentary and the tweets referring to them were to be removed under information technology laws that the Modi government implemented in 2021. According to one report, senior officials from different branches of the government reviewed the documentary and found it to be “an attempt to cast aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India, sow divisions among various Indian communities, and make unsubstantiated allegations regarding the actions of foreign governments in India.” (The Supreme Court had previously cleared Modi of blame for the riots.) One official told The Hindu that the documentary undermined “the sovereignty and integrity of India,” and had the potential to “adversely impact public order within the country.”

India has several laws that give officials the authority to order information providers to remove or block access to content, including the Information Technology Act of 2000, which allows the government to block content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order.” The additional law that the Modi government passed in 2021 bills itself as a “digital media ethics code” that requires social media platforms to take down content within thirty-six hours of receiving a government order, and to otherwise assist law enforcement agencies with their inquiries. Foreign social-media companies are also required to employ a local staffer who can handle such official requests. Some critics have referred to this as a “hostage-taking law,” on the grounds that these local employees could end up in prison should their employer refuse to play ball.

In February 2021, amid widespread protests sparked by new agricultural laws, Twitter took down more than five hundred accounts that had posted critical comments about Modi and the government; the company also used its “country withheld” feature, a geo-blocking tool, to hide tweets from users located in India. (They remained visible for users elsewhere.) At the time, Twitter said that it had refused to remove any accounts or tweets belonging to journalists, politicians, or activists because it believed that doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression.” And Twitter said that it was committed to maintaining a healthy conversation on its platform, insisting that “the tweets should flow”—a clear echo of language that the company used in 2011, after the Egyptian government shut off access to the internet during the Arab Spring uprising there.

In the 2021 case, Twitter initially refused the Indian government’s takedown requests before the company folded and complied. Last July, in a separate case, Twitter went further in its attempts to push back, suing the Indian government over a decree that forced the company to remove tweets and block a number of accounts, as I wrote for CJR at the time. (It wasn’t clear which tweets and accounts were in question because Indian law gags platforms from talking publicly about the orders they receive.) Twitter initially obeyed the order but then filed the suit, arguing that the government had interpreted the law too broadly, according to a report in the New York Times. The suit described the order as overbroad, arbitrary, and disproportionate; the content in question, Twitter argued, was either political commentary, criticism, or otherwise newsworthy, and therefore should not be removed. (The case, as far as I can tell, is ongoing.)

In 2021, Maddy Crowell wrote for CJR that the Modi government’s weaponization of Twitter had endangered a number of news publishers, not least Caravan, which Crowell (who once interned there) described as one of the few Indian media outlets that had “refused to fall under the sway of the government or its acolytes,” and which had become known for publishing hard-hitting investigations of those in power. One day, without warning, Twitter took down Caravan’s account, along with more than two hundred and fifty others. The government told Caravan that one of its tweets amounted to “malicious social media propaganda” that could “lead to creating turmoil and havoc in the minds of the public.”

As Paromi Soni reported for CJR, also in 2021, the rules under which a tweet may be considered inflammatory are now much broader in India than they have been in the past; tweets can be cited as “objectionable” or “seditious” if they contain dissent of any kind, Soni wrote, and criticism of sexual violence can also be branded as dissent—if the perpetrators are Hindu. The government has given itself the power to remove any form of content it sees as “anti-national,” but the definition of that term is murky, Soni wrote. Now the government is reportedly considering new laws that would further extend its control over social media: according to Reuters, a draft proposal published recently would allow the government to order the removal of any information identified as “fake or false” by the government’s communications department or any other agency that has been officially authorized for fact-checking. The proposal, the Editors Guild of India said in a statement, “will stifle legitimate criticism of the government and will have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold governments to account.”

India isn’t the only country to have weaponized laws supposedly targeted at misinformation or offensive content against speech that the government dislikes. Vietnam and Pakistan already have so-called “fake news” rules that give their respective governments wide latitude to remove content, or force companies to do so, in the name of “public order and security.” Brazil and Poland are considering similar laws. Recently, the government of Turkey—where the increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is seeking reelection this year—pushed through a law that threatens lengthy jail terms for the authors of stories and social media posts that “spread information that is inaccurate” and creates “fear” and “panic” in areas including “domestic and external security,” “public order,” and “public health.”

Twitter, of course, has changed hands since it sued the Indian government last year. Its new owner, Elon Musk, once called himself a “free speech absolutist,” but his behavior at Twitter so far has not reflected that ideal, as I wrote recently—and that was before being asked to stand up to any foreign governments. “There’s this deep tension in the way that Elon Musk has talked about how he’s going to run the platform,” Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford who researches online speech, told Time magazine for a story about Twitter’s “India problem” that predated the government’s censorship of the BBC documentary. “His proclamations about being a free speech platform would suggest standing up to authoritarians, who are the biggest threat to free speech. But he has also said he will obey local laws—which in many areas of the world, means being far more restrictive than Twitter’s current content moderation rules.” Since Musk’s takeover, Twitter has reportedly restored several Hindu-nationalist accounts known for posting hate speech directed at Muslims. This week, the platform complied with the Indian government’s request to take down links to the documentary.

Social media is not the be-all and end-all of political speech, of course, nor is it the only focus of censorship in India. Modi’s government, indeed, seems willing to go to extraordinary lengths to stop people from watching the BBC documentary. On Tuesday, students in New Delhi tried to screen the program at a university. The government responded by cutting off the power.

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

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