The recent farmers’ protests in India led to an exceptional dispute between the government and Twitter, as the social media platform has refused the Indian government’s request to block hundreds of accounts, including those of journalists. The disagreement began on February 1 when Twitter blocked or deleted 250 accounts and tweets at the request of the government and then restored most of them within a few hours later.
Amongst the accounts suspended was that of independent magazine Caravan, which is known for its critical viewpoints towards the central government’s policies. Just days before, its journalists had been hit with sedition cases. Still, the blocking was unexpected, the magazine’s executive editor, Vinod Jose, said. “Our account was blocked without notice and the first contact from Twitter telling us our account was blocked came nearly an hour after. So that was shocking and surprising at the same time”, he told the International Press Institute (IPI) in a recent interview.
Despite the fact that the accounts were restored a few hours later, the Indian government’s efforts to block specific sparked off a renewed debate over press freedom in a country where pressure on journalists had already been building. “It gives a signal that government could demand Twitter to block critical media, like Caravan, which of course covers the government independently”, Jose said. Even though the magazine gained a lot of attention due to its blockage on Twitter, and its followers and subscribers increased notably soon after, Jose is worried about how those kind of blockages would affect freedom of expression in the long run.
On February 4, the Indian cabinet sent a 18-page notice to Twitter expressing its discontent over the account restorations. In its notice the government argued that Twitter did not have the right to make such decisions on its own, as it is “an intermediary bound by the orders of the Central Government”, It also threatened the company with legal action which might lead up to seven years’ imprisonment.
The social media platform answered a couple of days later with a blog statement saying that it had suspended more than 500 accounts in India that had violated its rules, although some of those were still available outside the country though. However, Twitter also said that it refused to take any action against accounts of journalists, media organizations, activists and politicians. “Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law”, Twitter said in its blog.
Government wants to control the narrative
Prominent journalist Nidhi Razdan, the recipient of the 2019 IPI India National Committee Award for Excellence in Journalism, told IPI that the fight with Twitter is just further evidence of the Indian government’s aim to control the public narrative as much as possible. She said that the farmers’ protests, which have gathered hundreds of thousands of people around India to demonstrate against significant reforms to national agriculture policies, presented a big political challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The protests against the new farm laws, which have continued for months, became violent on January 26 when India celebrated its 72nd Republic Day.
Several journalists have been arrested, charged or harassed while covering the protests. Caravan Magazine journalist Mandeep Punia was detained along with Online News India reporter Dharmender Singh near Singhu village, the epicentre of the farmers’ protests, outside the capital New Delhi on January 30. “Caravan has been following the good procedures of journalism during the protests”, Jose said. Yet this has not prevented the arbitrary attacks the magazine and its journalists have faced in the past month.
Twitter’s role increasingly important
The popularity of Twitter, which was founded in 2006, has risen year after year in India. Currently, with 17.5 million accounts, the country is the third-biggest user of the platform, behind the United States and Japan. According to Twitter’s transparency report India is also amongst the top five countries that have requested Twitter to remove content. In the reporting period from January to June 2020 the number of accounts targeted in removal requests from India increased by 69 percent. Strikingly, the majority of legal demands against verified accounts belonging to journalists or media organizations during this period originated from India. Out of 333 demands, 149 came from India and 142 from Turkey.
For an independent outlet like The Caravan, social media plays a big role in reaching an audience and marketing its content. The magazine has more than 300,000 Twitter followers. “It is a helpful platform”, Jose said adding that in past 13 years Indian people had become accustomed to getting their news there. “Of course it’s not as important as the website and newspaper.”
But it’s not just the media that relies on Twitter. The Indian government itself also utilizes Twitter more and more in its daily communication with the public, Sanjay Kapoor, the editor of the independent online outlet Hard News, told IPI. In fact, astonishingly, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not hold any press conferences during his six years in power. Instead, he communicates statements directly to his Twitter audience of 65 million people. “Government has realized the power of Twitter”, Kapoor said. Many journalists are on Twitter just so that they can keep eye on Modi and be the first to know what the cabinet is working on, he added.
But the experience of the farmers’ protests appears to have awoken politicians up to an aspect of Twitter they apparently like less: the platform’s ability to generate public scrutiny of their actions. “When Rihanna reacted, it was great surprise to them”, Kapoor noted.
Kapoor said that the blocking of Twitter accounts didn’t mean that journalists wouldn’t be able to do their work, but it would get more difficult. That’s why from now on reporters need to be more careful on what they are tweeting about.
As an example, he mentioned the case of journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande and Zafar Agha. On January 30 all three of them were booked for “sedition, criminal conspiracy, and promoting enmity” due to their Twitter posts on the death of protester. Sardesai, Pande and Zafar had tweeted that the protester was likely shot by the police based on the eyewitness testimony published in Caravan. Later the authorities said that it was not true and the protester had died after his tractor had overturned while he was driving. “Government makes it really difficult. Number of interest groups are watching carefully. You have to be mindful”, Kapoor said.
Universal standards needed
Based on IPI’s interviews, journalists in India seem to be waiting for more clarity from Twitter as well about its blocking policy. There is a perception that Twitter’s standards on blocking – whether as a request from governments or through its internal policy are incoherent and vary widely from country-to country. The permanent ban on former U.S. President Donald Trump is an example of that. Critics point out that accounts in other countries that violate Twitter’s rules to an even greater extent are allowed to remain online.
When it comes to the blocking of journalists’ accounts, India Twitter has largely stood its group. But as Razdan put it: “We will have to wait and see if that holds.”.