In the latest crackdown on free speech and press in the country, the Centre has asked Twitter to block 1,178 accounts alleging links to foreign anti-social elements and Khalistan sympathisers. Earlier, employees of the social network were threatened with “penal action” after it unilaterally unblocked 250 accounts flagged by the government. A report by MANYA SAINI.
The Central government has issued directives to Twitter, the social media platform, instructing it to block 1,178 accounts amid intensifying international outrage over the farmers’ protest and the ‘toolkit’ controversy. According to a report by ANI, the Centre has alleged that these accounts are responsible for spreading misinformation and provocative content peddled by Khalistan sympathisers and foreign entities. Further, it has claimed that several of them are automated chatbots designed to amplify content that incenses the public and incites violence.
Twitter is yet to issue a statement and comply with the order. Earlier this month, it had blocked 250 accounts at the behest of the government that included The Caravan magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha. The social media giant’s move had invited sharp criticism from activists and civil society organisations who argued that it was acting against the freedom of the press.
On the other hand, the government had deemed the trending hashtag, ‘ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide’ objectionable and provocative. The Centre alleged that the tweets were “fake and intimidatory” with baseless accusations against the Modi government posing a threat to law and order. However, several among those blocked had not used the hashtag, including The Caravan.
Our Official Twitter Account Withheld !! Why is govt. suppressing the voice of farmers? Does govt. fear farmers’ stern actions?
The government has alleged that Twitter has not complied with the directives it had issued under Section 69A of the IT Act. The law gives the Centre the power to block content or accounts that pose a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India. Further, it has warned that the company’s top executives in the country could be jailed for up to seven years if they failed to remove “objectionable and inflammatory content” flagged by the government.
After the accounts were unblocked, irked IT ministry officials met the tech giant’s lawyer who argued that the decision to unilaterally restore the accounts was made on the grounds that they constituted free speech and were newsworthy.
The social media row on the farmers’ protest has intensified in February as international celebrities and journalists including climate activist, Greta Thunberg, Rihanna and Meena Harris have criticised the Indian government’s handling of the agitation. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar commented on this saying, “You can see there was a reason why the foreign ministry reacted to the statement which some celebrities gave out on matters on which they obviously didn’t know very much.”
Further, the Delhi Police has registered an FIR against unnamed persons to probe the ‘toolkit’ case, writing a letter to Google seeking the activity log of the account on which it was uploaded on social media. It was shared and later deleted on Twitter by Greta Thunberg in support of the farmers protest against the new agricultural reforms.
Earlier, the Centre had issued a strongly worded notice where it said, “Twitter cannot sit as an appellate authority over the satisfaction of the authorities about its potential impact on derailing public order.” However, several activists have responded to this stating that neither can the government do that.
Anonymous sources quoted by ANI have claimed that the government has raised questions about Twitter’s neutrality after its CEO Jack Dorsey liked pro-farmer tweets including those by Washington Post journalist Karen Attiah. In a recent article, she cited India as an example to claim that “Twitter is becoming the battle arena and a potent weapon in struggles between governments and their people.”
The apparent crackdown on civil liberties in the country has intensified since the Republic Day violence in the national capital during the tractor rally. The government has alleged conspiracy against the integrity of India and “motivated campaigns” to damage its reputation.
Journalists from noted news organisations like The Wire and The Caravan have been booked and charged recently for their coverage of the farm protests.
(Manya Saini is a student at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, and an intern with The Leaflet.)