The Indian government has ordered Twitter to remove over 50 tweets regarding its handling of a brutal wave of coronavirus. The platform is facing criticism for being ‘complicit’ in the tragedy.

Twitter has withheld dozens of tweets from being viewed in India, primarily those critical of India's handling of the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic, on the orders from Prime Minister Nehendra Modi’s government.

Many of the tweets featured the hashtag #ModiMadeDisaster and photographs of a woman breathing from an oxygen tank while sitting on the roadside. 

“India will never forgive PM @narendramodi for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement,” wrote Moloy Ghatak, a politician from the All India Trinamool Congress party, in a tweet that is reportedly currently blocked in India.

The details of the government’s order can be found on Lumen, a database from Harvard University which “collects and studies online content removal requests, providing transparency and supporting analysis of the Web’s takedown ‘ecology’”. 

Other tweets depicted harrowing pictures of people being treated in tents and pyres lit across the country as the healthcare and funeral systems struggle to keep up with the latest surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. 

Users are pushing back against Twitter’s decision to comply with the government’s orders, calling the platform “complicit” in the coronavirus tragedy.

"Suppression of information and criticism of government is not only dangerous for India but it is putting people around the world at risk," said Mirza Saaib Beg, a lawyer whose tweets were among those withheld.

"Freedom of inquiry is an intrinsic part of freedom of speech and expression. These restrictions are further reflective of the weakening of all institutional spaces in India," he continued. 

The law cited in the government's Twitter request is the Information Technology Act, 2000, which allows authorities to order blocking of public access to information to protect "sovereignty and integrity of India" and maintain public order.

Requests from the government are reviewed under Twitter's rules and the local law, a spokeswoman for Twitter said.

In February this year, the government ordered Twitter to remove over a thousand accounts related to the farmers’ protests under section 69A of the Information Technology Act. 

Twitter said in a blog post regarding its actions then that it reduced the visibility of certain hashtags containing “harmful content” and permanently suspended more than 500 accounts upon the Indian government’s request. 

At the time, the platform indicated that it had not taken action “on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” citing that it would “violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.”

This time around, however, it appears that Twitter is withholding tweets from politicians.

India registered a peak of 352,991 coronavirus cases and 2,812 deaths on Monday, according to the health ministry data, though many health experts say the numbers are likely much higher. With a population of 1.3 billion, India has over 17.31 million infections and 195,123 deaths. 

Overcrowded hospitals are reportedly turning away patients after running out of supplies of medical oxygen and beds.

On social media and in television footage, desperate relatives plead for oxygen outside hospitals or weep in the street for loved ones who died waiting for treatment.

Criticism is rising that Modi's federal government and state authorities were not adequately prepared to handle the crisis.

Modi and other politicians have held rallies attended by thousands of people, packed close together in stadiums and grounds, despite the brutal second wave of infections.

Health experts said India became complacent in the winter, when new cases were running at about 10,000 a day and seemed to be under control. Authorities lifted restrictions, allowing the resumption of big gatherings, including large religious festivals and political rallies for local elections.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies