Free speech under threat as India clamps down on farmer protests
As farmers camp out for months against new farm laws, mainstream and social media come under unprecedented attacks by the government.
When Vinod K Jose, executive editor of The Caravan, India’s leading investigative magazine, logged onto Twitter on Monday, he was shocked to find the magazine’s account had been blocked.
Jose was already dealing with a case of sedition and other charges against him, the magazine owners and a freelance journalist. At the heart of the allegations is the magazine’s coverage of the ongoing farmers’ protests that have gripped India for more than two months.
As the farmers camp out on the edges of the capital, protesting against new agricultural laws they say will devastate their earnings, mainstream and social media have come under unprecedented attacks from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Critics say the government has used the mass demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech, arresting journalists and freezing Twitter accounts.
“It’s a very chilling development for the press,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.
The government first came after Muslims because they are an easily visible minority. But now it is coming after anyone who has an informed, intelligent expression.
Jose shared a screenshot of the blocked account from his personal handle. Soon, outrage ensued. Activists, journalists and media watchdogs rushed to condemn Twitter, which said it had acted upon a “valid legal request” issued by an Indian authority.
Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers’ union, were suspended on Monday. Some, including The Caravan’s, have since been restored.
Offline, at least nine journalists have been charged in the last few weeks for covering the protests.
The trigger for the clampdown was the death of a protester, Navneet Singh, when the largely peaceful rallies turned violent on January 26 after a group of farmers veered from an agreed protest route and stormed New Delhi’s historic Red Fort.
Hundreds of police and farmers were injured in clashes. Farmer leaders condemned the violence but refused to call off the protest.
Authorities say no shots were fired and that Singh died because his tractor overturned. His family alleged he was fatally shot. Their account has been published by several outlets, including The Caravan.
Ministers in Modi’s government accused the journalists and a prominent opposition parliamentarian of inciting hatred and endangering the nation’s integrity through inaccurate reporting and tweets. It led to the filing of colonial-era sedition charges, which carry a maximum five-year prison term.
The law, like its equivalent in other former British colonies, is viewed as draconian and was revoked in the United Kingdom in 2010.
Prosecutions on sedition charges are rare but their use to silence journalists, critics and dissenters in India are not new and previous governments had also resorted to it.
But official data shows Modi’s government has used the law more than any other – up by nearly 30 percent. It has also repeatedly rejected demands to repeal it.
Calls and messages seeking comment from four BJP spokespeople went unanswered, said The Associated Press news agency, adding that calls to the party’s media office were also unsuccessful.
Media watchdogs and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, condemned the government’s actions as censorship. The Editors Guild of India said the cases against journalists were “an attempt to intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media”.
Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders’s Asia-Pacific desk, said the government was trying to impose its own narrative.
Critics say India under Modi is growing intolerant. Its ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has fallen every year, and it ranked 142nd out of 180 in 2020.
Reporters Without Borders noted “police violence against journalists” and increased “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line” as key reasons for the demotion.
But similarly, Twitter’s reaction to the suspension of accounts has also “set a terrible precedent” for free speech and press, said Jose.
“We like Twitter to stand neutral as opposed to being vulnerable to the pressures of power,” he said.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in its notice to Twitter on Monday said it directed the company to take down accounts that had used incendiary hashtags during the January 26 violence.
But Jose said The Caravan never used such hashtags and Twitter did not notify the magazine before suspending its account.
The ministry did not respond to calls and emails but issued another statement on Wednesday, accusing Twitter of “unilaterally” restoring the accounts “despite orders to withhold them”.
It said the platform had to adhere to the authorities’ directions and may face criminal charges “for not complying with government orders”.
Twitter declined to comment.
Gupta from Internet Freedom Foundation said the information technology law the government invoked to freeze the Twitter accounts gives it the power to direct online intermediaries and internet service providers to block certain content without providing any explanation.
“In the past, governments have blocked individual journalistic accounts, but the blocking of an account of an entire publication is a level of escalation,” said Gupta.
The government’s response to the farmer protests has gone beyond India’s borders.
On Wednesday, India’s foreign ministry condemned “vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda” after pop star Rihanna and teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the protests.
Entertainers in India have not been spared either.
On January 1, Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested for allegedly insulting Hindu sentiments before he could even begin his performance in Indore, a city in Madhya Pradesh state that is governed by Modi’s party.
In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a criminal offence. But Faruqui was arrested preemptively before his performance even began.
“Before he could even make the joke, before he could even really start the show, police came and dragged him away,” said Anshuman Shrivastava, Faruqui’s lawyer.
The show was cancelled and police have since admitted they have no evidence against the comedian. He was granted temporary bail by the Supreme Court on Friday, after three lower courts refused to do so.
The Associated Press reached out to five prominent comedians who did not want to speak on the record but said they were increasingly scared of making jokes against the government and Hindu religion.
“What we are witnessing right now is a blatant violation of free speech in India, which the government has legitimised in full public view,” said Sanjay Rajoura, a prominent Indian satirist.
“The government first came after Muslims because they are an easily visible minority. But now it is coming after anyone who has an informed, intelligent expression.”
The ire of Hindu nationalist groups aligned with Modi’s party has also caught streaming platforms off guard. Many of their shows have faced boycott calls and legal cases.
Recently, the Supreme Court issued a notice to Amazon Prime over its show Mirzapur after a petition claimed it hurt cultural sentiments.
Such incidents have not inspired much faith in the courts, said The Caravan’s Jose. He and the owners are still battling criminal charges.
“I hope the courts see that the world is watching how the largest democracy’s judiciary defends personal liberties,” Jose said.