Attempts by the Indian media to report on the events surrounding the death of a farmer have faced a draconian crackdown by Indian authorities.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government resorted to censoring some 250 Indian accounts and tweets associated with farmers’ protests, for more than 12 hours on Monday.

The Twitter suspensions, applied to only viewers based in India, were the result of a legal demand to Twitter by the Indian government, came after a slew of Indian journalists faced a crackdown by authorities for reporting on allegations linked to protests that took place on January 26.

According to ANI, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) directed Twitter to block the accounts which were using the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag and “making fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets on January 30”.

Accounts withheld included investigative magazine The Caravan, which often publishes content critical of the government; Kisan Ekta Morcha (Farmers’ Unity Front), an account with over 170,000 followers; Tractor to Twitter, which has more than 42,000 followers; writers and activists Hansraj Meena, Sandeep Choudhury, Sanjukta Basu, Mohammad Asif Khan, and former lawmaker MD Salim.

After blockages drew extensive condemnation online, Twitter unblocked all the accounts late on Monday.

There was no public explanation or detail of the legal demand from the government. A Twitter statement on “country-withheld content” said suspensions of accounts or content was routine, arguing “many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and Twitter account content”.

Indian government supporters claim accounts of news sites, activists and actors – which have shared content criticising the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – sought to foment violence amid the ongoing farmer protests.

Thousands of farmers have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi since November 2020, demanding that the government withdraw agricultural reform bills passed in September.

The mass agitation has transformed into the greatest challenge to the BJP government’s authority to date.

Demonstrations turned violent last week on India’s Republic Day, when riot police were sent in to quash protesters in Delhi who breached barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort. A 25-year-old demonstrator Navneet Singh was killed amid the violence and hundreds were injured.

Delhi police claimed that Singh died in an accident when his tractor overturned. Photographic and video footage of Singh’s body and a postmortem report, however, indicated he suffered an injury consistent with one fatal gunshot wound through the head.

In a bid to control the narrative, critics say that the cover up of the farmer’s death has led to criminal charges being filed against anyone who challenges the official government account.

Baseless crackdown

Authorities have since lasered in on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing government critics and prosecuting journalists covering the protests in response to the events that transpired on January 26 around Singh’s death.

At least eight journalists who covered the protests have been slapped with baseless criminal charges linked to sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity under the Indian Penal Code for publishing stories on the gunshot allegations or tweeting any mention of them.

On January 30, Dharmender Singh and Mandeep Punia, journalists reporting on the protests, were detained. Punia was charged with obstructing the police and sent to judicial custody for 14 days.

On January 31, a case was filed against Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of the independent online news portal The Wire, for tweeting a news report on the claims made by the dead protestor’s family. Varadarajan was charged for allegedly promoting enmity between communities and making statements prejudicial to national integration.

Another six senior journalists and editors – including The Caravan’s editor Vinod K Jose, Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath – have been booked by police in BJP-ruled states on grounds of sedition and promoting communal disharmony, for allegedly “misreporting” the facts around the protestor’s death.

Congress party politician Shashi Tharoor also faces charges of sedition for tweeting about the allegations.

Kanwardeep Singh, a journalist for the Times of India, claims that since publishing a story linked to the allegations, he has endured threats on social media and even surveillance.

Student activists hold placards and protest against the recent detention of journalists covering the farmers' protest in the country's capital, at Allahabad University in Prayagraj, India, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021.
Student activists hold placards and protest against the recent detention of journalists covering the farmers' protest in the country's capital, at Allahabad University in Prayagraj, India, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP)

Journalist associations and opposition political parties have condemned the crackdown.

The Editors Guild of India said the police cases were an “attempt to intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media” and intended to prevent the press “from working as an independent watchdog of Indian democracy.” It demanded immediate withdrawal of the cases and said the media should “be allowed to report without fear and with freedom.”

Police have also filed cases of rioting, attempted murder, and criminal conspiracy against 37 well-known farmers’ union leaders and activists, alleging they made inflammatory speeches and were involved in violence.

With anti-government protests spreading across India, the last year has seen a spate of legal demands sent to Twitter by the Indian government requesting content takedowns, according to Twitter’s transparency report.

According to the most recent period of the data available, between January and June 2020 Twitter received 2,768 legal demands for content removal in India, more than a 250 percent increase from the previous six months.

India also led the world in government-targeted Internet shutdowns in 2020, with stoppages lasting almost 9,000 hours and costing the economy an estimated $2.7 billion.

Source: TRT World