India’s removal of tweets critical of COVID response ‘dangerous’

Removing dozens of tweets critical of the government’s pandemic response puts people’s health at risk and quashes dissent, say legislators and human rights activists.

A mass cremation of victims who died due to COVID-19 seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

The removal of dozens of tweets seen to be critical of the Indian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is putting people’s health at risk and quashing dissent, legislators and human rights activists say.

Twitter withheld some tweets after a legal request by the Indian government, a company spokeswoman told Reuters news agency on Saturday. These included tweets from a lawmaker, a minister in the state of West Bengal, and a filmmaker.

“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,” said Beg, who is studying at Britain’s University of Oxford.

India’s ministry for information technology did not respond to a request for comment.

The country’s new coronavirus infections hit a record peak for a fifth day on Monday, rising to about 353,000 cases.

There is mounting criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and state authorities let their guard down earlier this year, allowing big religious and political gatherings to take place when cases fell to below 10,000 a day.

“Questioning the government of India’s decision to allow mass gatherings … where people from all across the country gathered and violated COVID safety protocols … cannot be called to be violating any laws of the country,” said Pawan Khera, a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, whose tweets were also withheld.

The law cited in the government’s request to Twitter is the Information Technology Act of 2000, which allows authorities to order the 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 local laws, a spokeswoman for Twitter told Reuters.

The government’s request showed a “lack of transparency”, said the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group in Delhi.

“What is clear is there are more directions being issued across social media platforms in India,” it said in a statement.

Twitter has about 17.5 million users in India.

In its most recent transparency report for the six months to June 30, 2020, Twitter said it had received 42,220 legal demands to remove content from 53 countries, with most of the requests coming from five countries including Russia, India and Turkey.

Earlier this year, the social media giant withheld dozens of accounts at the request of the Indian government on the grounds that users were posting misleading content related to farmers’ protests near Delhi, aiming to incite violence.

But Twitter did not fully comply with the government order to take down more than 1,100 accounts and posts, saying it had not blocked all the content because it believed the directives were not in line with Indian laws.

Following the face-off with Twitter earlier this year, the Indian government unveiled tougher rules to regulate big social media firms that it said were needed to hold the companies accountable for any misuse or abuse.

“We all would prefer free spaces to objectively critique power in the offline as well as online space. However, both spaces are increasingly shrinking,” Beg told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Source: Reuters