AP

India clamps down on free speech to fight farmer protests

Feb 5, 2021, 5:49 AM
FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, file photo, farmers camping in the edges of the city partici...
FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, file photo, farmers camping in the edges of the city participate in a tractor protest rally towards the capital during India's Republic Day in New Delhi, India. Following the protests, the mainstream and social media have come under unprecedented attacks from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The trigger for the clampdown was the death of a protester, Navneet Singh, when the largely peaceful rallies turned violent on Jan. 26 after a group of farmers veered from an agreed protest route and stormed New Delhi’s 17th century Red Fort. Farmer leaders condemned the violence but refused to call off the protest. Authorities say no shots were fired and that Singh died because his tractor overturned. His family alleged he was fatally shot. (AP Photo/Dinesh Joshi, File)
(AP Photo/Dinesh Joshi, File)

NEW DELHI (AP) — When Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan, India’s leading investigating magazine, logged onto Twitter on Monday, he was shocked to find the magazine’s account blocked.

Jose was already dealing with a case of sedition and other charges against him, the magazine owners and a freelance journalist. At the heart of the allegations is the magazine’s coverage of the ongoing farmers’ protests that have gripped India for more than two months.

As the farmers camp out at the edges of the capital, protesting new agricultural laws they say will devastate their earnings, the mainstream and social media have come under unprecedented attacks from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Critics say it has used the massive demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech, detaining journalists and freezing Twitter accounts.

“It’s a very chilling development for the press,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.

Jose shared a screenshot of the blocked account from his personal handle. Soon outrage ensued. Activists, journalists and media watchdogs rushed to condemn Twitter, which said it had acted upon a “valid legal request” issued by an Indian authority.

Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers’ union, were suspended on Monday. Some, including The Caravan’s, have since been restored.

Offline, at least nine journalists have been charged in the last few weeks for covering the protests.

The trigger for the clampdown was the death of a protester, Navneet Singh, when the largely peaceful rallies turned violent on Jan. 26 after a group of farmers veered from an agreed protest route and stormed New Delhi’s 17th century Red Fort. Hundreds of police and farmers were injured in clashes.

Farmer leaders condemned the violence but refused to call off the protest.

Authorities say no shots were fired and that Singh died because his tractor overturned. His family alleged he was fatally shot. Their account has been published by several outlets, including The Caravan.

Ministers in Modi’s government accused the journalists and a prominent opposition parliamentarian of inciting hatred and endangering the nation’s integrity through inaccurate reporting and tweets. It led to the filing of colonial-era sedition charges, which carry a maximum five-year prison term.

The law, like its equivalent in other former British colonies, is viewed as draconian and was revoked in the United Kingdom in 2010.

Prosecutions on sedition charges are rare but their use to silence journalists, critics and dissenters in India isn’t new and previous governments had resorted to it. But official data shows that Modi’s government has used the law more than any other — up by nearly 30%. It has also repeatedly rejected demands to repeal it.

Calls and messages seeking comment from four BJP spokespersons went unanswered. Calls to the party’s media office also were unsuccessful.

Media watchdogs and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, condemned the government’s actions as censorship. The Editors Guild of India said the cases against journalists were “an attempt to intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media.”

Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, said the government was trying to impose its own narrative.

Critics say India under Modi is growing intolerant. Its ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has fallen every year, and it ranked 142nd out of 180 places in 2020.

Reporters Without Borders noted “police violence against journalists” and increased “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line” as a major reason for the demotion.

But similarly, Twitter’s reaction of suspending accounts has also “set a terrible precedent” for free speech and press, said Jose.

“We like Twitter to stand neutral as opposed to being vulnerable to the pressures of power,” he said.

India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in its notice to Twitter on Monday said that it directed the company to take down accounts that had used incendiary hashtags during the Jan. 26 violence. But Jose said The Caravan never used such hashtags and that Twitter did not notify the magazine before suspending its account.

The ministry did not respond to calls and emails but issued another statement Wednesday, accusing Twitter of “unilaterally” restoring the accounts “despite orders to withhold them.”

It said the platform had to adhere to the authorities’ directions and may face criminal charges “for not complying with government orders.”

Twitter declined to comment.

Gupta from Internet Freedom Foundation said the IT law the government invoked to freeze the Twitter accounts gives it the power to direct online intermediaries and internet service providers to block certain content without providing any explanation.

“In the past, governments have blocked individual journalistic accounts, but the blocking of an account of an entire publication is a level of escalation,” said Gupta.

The government’s response to the farmer protests has gone beyond India’s borders.

On Wednesday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs condemned “vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda” after pop star Rihanna and teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the protests.

Entertainers in India haven’t been spared either.

On Jan. 1, Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested for allegedly insulting Hindu sentiments while performing in Indore, a city in Madhya Pradesh state that’s ruled by Modi’s party.

In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a criminal offense. But Faruqui was arrested preemptively before his performance even began.

“Before he could even make the joke, before he could even really start the show, police came and dragged him away,” said Anshuman Shrivastava, Faruqui’s lawyer.

The show was canceled and police have since admitted they have no evidence against the comic. He was granted temporary bail by the Supreme Court on Friday, after three lower courts refused to do so.

The Associated Press reached out to five prominent comedians who didn’t want to speak on record but said they were increasingly scared of making jokes against the government and Hindu religion.

“What we are witnessing right now is a blatant violation of free speech in India, which the government has legitimized in full public view,” said Sanjay Rajoura, a prominent Indian satirist. “The government first came after Muslims because they are an easily visible minority. But now it is coming after anyone who has an informed, intelligent expression.”

The ire of Hindu nationalist groups aligned with Modi’s party has also caught streaming platforms off guard. Many of their shows have faced boycott calls and legal cases. Recently, the Supreme Court issued a notice to Amazon Prime over its show “Mirzapur” after a petition claimed it hurt cultural sentiments.

Such incidents haven’t inspired much faith in the courts, said The Caravan’s Jose. He and the owners are still battling criminal charges.

“I hope the courts see that the world is watching how the largest democracy’s judiciary defends personal liberties,” Jose said.

Today’s Top Stories

AP

a small boy recieves a COVID-19 vaccine in China...
JOE McDONALD Associated Press

China eases anti-COVID measures following protests

Experts warn, however, that restrictions can’t be lifted completely until at least mid-2023 because millions of elderly people still must be vaccinated.
24 hours ago
A memorial is pictured near the scene of the Colorado shooting at Club Q...
COLLEEN SLEVIN Associated Press

Colorado gay club shooting suspect charged with hate crimes

Investigators say Anderson Lee Aldrich entered Club Q, a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in this mostly conservative city, just before midnight on Nov. 19.
2 days ago
DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 25: A giant flag of IR Iran on the pitch prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2...
ALI ABDUL-HASSAN and ABBY SEWELL Associated Press

US-Iran match reflects a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

The U.S. team’s must-win World Cup match against Iran will be closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.
9 days ago
Irene Cara in 'Fame' (Photo courtesy of Mgm/Kobal, Shutterstock)...
MARK KENNEDY, AP Entertainment Writer

‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’ singer-actor Irene Cara dies at 63

singer-actress Irene Cara, who starred and sang the title cut from the 1980 hit movie “Fame” and then belted out the era-defining hit “Flashdance ... What a Feeling” from 1983's “Flashdance,” has died. She was 63.
11 days ago
The U.S. Coast Guard ship Bernard C. Webber, leaves the coast guard base, Monday, July 19, 2021, in...
Associated Press

‘Miracle’: Missing cruise ship passenger found OK in water

The U.S. Coast Guard says a passenger who went overboard from a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico was rescued on Thanksgiving after likely being in the water for hours.
12 days ago
FILE - A Montana man was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the Capitol riot. (AP P...
The Associated Press

Montana man gets 3 years in prison for role in Capitol riot

A Montana man will spend three years in federal prison for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S Capitol.
13 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
India clamps down on free speech to fight farmer protests