COVID-19 is devastating India. Modi’s 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 plagued by a deadly second wave of coronavirus pandemic. But even as its healthcare system takes its breath away and its crematoriums burn with thousands of funeral pyres, its leaders are scrambling to censor the internet.

Last week India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to prevent more than 50 tweets from being seen in the country. A few days later, the New York Times, the the Wall Street newspaper, and the India time reported that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have 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 threats to shut them down and the police in the state of Uttar Pradesh filed a complaint against a man who asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming he was “spreading misleading information.” Wednesday, posts with the hashtag #ResignModi faded away from Facebook for a few hours. 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 within days of each other 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 developing, he cracked down on social media, one of the last free spaces for citizens to voice their opinions. New regulations gave the government broad powers to restrict content, forcing US tech platforms, which see India as a key market, to strike a balance between growth and free expression.

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

In February, the Indian government ordered Twitter to delete more than 250 tweets criticizing the way the government has handled 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.”

“But now there is an increase in the frequency and scale of the censorship that is demanded,” Apar Gupta, director of the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “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 genuine 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 “ancient and unrelated visuals 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 eliminating dangerous rumors and censoring political expression, the ministry gave no explanation for any other ordered content. A BuzzFeed News review of the rest of the restricted tweets showed that they appeared to be making legitimate criticisms 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, a national spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The tweet, which was posted on April 12, shows photos from the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious gathering held earlier this month in which millions of people bathed in a river even as cases of coronaviruses were increasing rapidly. Ordinary Indians and the world press criticized the Indian government for allowing the rally. In her tweet, Khera compares 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 as the country had less than 1,000 confirmed cases .

“Why was my tweet not published?” 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 sow 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 have an answer from them, I will bring them to justice.

“If I don’t have an answer from them, I will bring them to justice,” he said. “I need legal help 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?” Alt News editor-in-chief Pratik Sinha asked. “And why were these tweets quoted? [out of 53]? “

Social media platforms aren’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 sprung up. in all the countries. But in the last few days, some of them have dissolved. According to a report on the Indian news site Quint, the volunteers who run these groups have received calls from people claiming to be Delhi police asking them to shut them down.

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

Experts said that one of the biggest problems in this situation is the lack of transparency – on the part of the government and the 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 did not comment on the alleged censorship in one of their biggest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News when asked.

“They haven’t even made a public statement about it,” said Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “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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