Several media watchdogs have condemned the Indian government’s decision to ban a BBC documentary criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the use of emergency powers to prevent clips from being accessed or shared online in India.
An adviser at India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said Saturday that Twitter and YouTube have been asked to block links sharing the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, which the government had previously described as a “propaganda piece”.
The documentary questions Modi’s leadership as prime minister during the riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, when around 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Human rights activists put the number of victims at around 2,500.
The International Press Institute (IPI) on Wednesday expressed its “concern” about authorities invoking emergency laws to block the documentary, saying the country’s 2021 IT Rules give the government “wide and uncontrolled powers” to Allow control and censorship of online content and news outlets.
“The Modi government is clearly abusing the emergency powers under IT rules to punish or limit any criticism of its policies,” said Amy Brouillette, IPI’s director of advocacy.
“We call on private platforms to continue to resist the Modi government’s overly broad and unjustified demands for censorship,” she continued. “Online platforms must ensure that their compliance with such demands does not support the government’s ongoing campaign to silence critics, journalists and activists in India.”
Social media giants Twitter and YouTube complied with the government’s order.
Last week, the government presented an amendment to IT regulations requiring platforms to remove content the government deems “fake or false” to protect “national sovereignty” and public order.
These latest moves are part of a broader attack on press freedom in India since Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
On Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that ordering social media platforms to block the documentary “constitutes an attack on the free press that flagrantly contradicts the country’s declared commitment to democratic ideals.”
“The authorities must immediately restore full and unrestricted access to the documentation and repeal provisions of the Information Technology Law that threaten freedom of the press and freedom of expression online,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.
Shrinking space for freedom of speech
For digital rights activists and organizations in India, the government’s censorship of the documentary – citing Rule 16 of the IT Rules of 2021 – has been a long time coming.
“Most of the measures taken by the authorities between December 2021 and April 2022 were against [social media] Channels not based in India as far as you could determine where a YouTube channel was based,” Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
“Since April we have seen incidents based on channels in India. As this shift began, it was always a question of which native dissenting voices to target next.”
Several news reports suggest so @MIB_India has directed social media platforms to release versions of a #BBCDocumentation titled “India: The Modi Question”.
The Department has reportedly exercised emergency censorship powers under Rule 16 of the IT Rules 2021.
— Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) (@internetfreedom) January 21, 2023
Successive governments have always found ways to deal with dissent or opposition, but under Modi control over social media has been legalized.
“Although one can argue that there needs to be some degree of oversight, what’s happening in India has been largely executive in nature,” Waghre said. “There is a lot of managerial discretion with minimal oversight. And that’s where the concern is.”
The political director said the space for vocal opposition from civil society and the media had “shrunk and shrunk”.
“Companies tend not to take a negative stance, at least publicly, but we’re not sure how much they question government orders behind closed doors,” Waghre said.
One exception is Twitter, which is currently suing the Indian government over content removal orders issued last summer. But given the social media giant’s recent new owner, it remains to be seen if the company will have the long-term appetite to make its case.
“Voice of Dissent”
Meanwhile, students across the country have pledged to screen the documentary in every Indian state, a day after campus screening at Jawaharlal Nehru University was interrupted by a power outage and intimidation by opponents.
“You will not stop the voice of dissent,” said Mayukh Biswas, general secretary of the Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxists).
A warning was issued Tuesday by Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi against unauthorized student gatherings ahead of SFI’s scheduled screening of the BBC documentary on Wednesday night, NDTV reported.
According to the broadcaster, the police arrested more than a dozen students there about an hour before the screening.
Delhi police did not immediately confirm whether students were arrested, but said there was a heavy deployment of police and security forces in riot gear at the university.
The operation was “to maintain law and order” both because of the demonstration and because of India’s Republic Day on January 26, police said.