COVID-19 Is Devastating India. Its Government Is Trying To Censor Social Media.

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A worker adjusts a funeral pyre of those who died from COVID-19 during a mass cremation at a crematorium in New Delhi on April 29, 2021.

India, a country of 1.4 billion people, has been in the grip of a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But even as its healthcare system is on its wane and its crematoriums burn with thousands of funeral pyres, its leaders scramble to censor the internet.

Last week, India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to block the dissemination of more than 50 tweets in the country. Days later, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Times of India reported that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube had also removed posts critical of 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 about threats demanding their closure, and state police. from Uttar Pradesh filed a complaint against a man who sought medical treatment. oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming he was “spreading misleading information.” Posts with the #ResignModi hashtag disappeared from Facebook for a few hours on Wednesday. And although the company restored it and claimed the Indian government had not called for its censorship, it did not provide details on why the hashtag was blocked.

These incidents – which occurred days apart as criticism of the Indian government peaked – highlight the shrinking space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy. As social unrest against an increasingly authoritarian government escalates, he has cracked down on social media, one of the last remaining open spaces for citizens to voice their opinions. New regulations have given the government broad powers to restrict content, forcing U.S. tech platforms, which count India as a key market, to strike a balance between growth and free speech.

This is not the first time that an Indian government has attempted to censor online speech. In 2012, before Modi came to power, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of India ordered internet service providers to block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to people from law.

“But now there is an increase in the frequency and scale of the censorship that is required,” Apar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation digital rights organization, told BuzzFeed News. “The current Internet censorship in India is directly linked to social criticism of government policies. “

In February, the Indian government ordered Twitter to delete more than 250 tweets criticizing the government’s handling of protests against new farm laws. Although Twitter has blocked most accounts, it has unblocked those belonging to journalists, activists and politicians, despite threats to jail from the Indian government.

“The current Internet censorship in India is directly linked to social criticism of government policies. ”

Over the weekend, India’s IT ministry attempted to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document it shared with the press and accessed by BuzzFeed News.

The “[g]The government welcomes the criticisms, the real requests for help as well as the suggestions in the collective fight against COVID19, ”the note said. “But there is a need to take action against users who abuse social media during this grave humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes.”

The ministry cited a handful of the 53 tweets it ordered blocked as examples of problematic content. There are four tweets that call the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory, and four more containing “old and unrelated pictures of patients and corpses.” At least two of the four cases are true examples of disinformation, Indian media fact-checkers Alt News and Newschecker who examined the footage told BuzzFeed News.

In an example of the thin line between suppressing dangerous rumors and censoring political expression, the ministry offered no explanation for any other ordered content. A BuzzFeed News review of the rest of the restricted tweets showed that at least some of them appeared to be addressing legitimate criticism of the Indian prime minister. One of the restricted tweets, for example, belongs to Moloy Ghatak, a minister in the state of West Bengal. He accuses Modi of mismanaging the pandemic and of exporting vaccines in the event of a shortage in India.

Neither Ghatak nor the IT ministry responded to requests for comment

One of the restricted tweets in India belonged to Pawan Khera, national spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The tweet, which was posted on April 12, shows footage from the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious rally held earlier this month in which millions of people bathed in a river even as coronavirus cases soared. Ordinary Indians and the world press criticized the Indian government for allowing the rally. In her tweet, Khera contrasts India’s lack of response to 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 cases confirmed.

“Why was my tweet withheld? Khera told BuzzFeed News. “This is the answer I need from the Indian government. “

“What laws am I breaking? What rumors am I spreading? Where did I cause the panic? These are the questions I need answered, ”said Khera, who sent a legal demand at the Department of Informatics and Twitter this week.

“If I don’t hear from them, I’ll take them to court.

“If I don’t hear from them, I will sue them,” he said. “I need legal assistance to protect my freedom of expression.”

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts said the ministry’s note did not provide sufficient justification to order social media platforms to censor the posts. “Since when did the government start sending takedown notices for disinformation? Asked Pratik Sinha, editor-in-chief of Alt News. “And why were these tweets quoted? [out of 53]? “

Social media platforms weren’t the only places to come under crackdown. In recent weeks, networks run by volunteers from WhatsApp and Telegram groups amplifying calls for help and giving people access to medical oxygen, life-saving drugs and hospital beds have seen the day all over the country. But in the last few days some of them have dissolved. Volunteers leading these groups have received calls from people claiming to be Delhi Police asking them to shut them down, according to a report on the Indian news site The Quint.

Delhi Police refuse that, but at that time people were scared. A network of WhatsApp groups run by more than 300 volunteers disbanded a few days ago even though they did not receive a call. “We decided not to take the risk,” the founder of the group, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “[I felt] frustration and anger.

Experts said one of the biggest problems in this situation is the lack of transparency, both from government and platforms. Last week, Twitter revealed details of the Department of Informatics’ order on Lumen, a Harvard University database that allows companies to disclose takedown notices from governments around the world. But Facebook, Instagram and Google have not commented on the alleged censorship in one of their largest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News when asked.

“They haven’t even made a public statement about it,” Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation said. “The first duty of transparency lies with the government, but there has been absolutely no transparency on the part of the platforms.”

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