Covid-19 devastates India. Her government is trying to censor social media.


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A worker modifies a funeral pyre for 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, was hit by a second fatal wave of Corona Virus pandemic. But even as its health care system is gasping for air, and crematoria are burning with thousands of funeral homes, its leaders are scrambling to censor the Internet.

Last week, the Indian Ministry of Information Technology Command Twitter to block over 50 Tweets from appearing in the country. Days later, it was The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, And the Times of India You mentioned that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have also removed posts critical of the government. Over the past week, regular people have turned on WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds Complained Among the threats demanding them to close it, and the police in Uttar Pradesh File a complaint Against a man who asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming that he was “spreading misinformation.” On Wednesday, posts will be posted with the hashtag #ResignModi disappear From Facebook for a few hours. Although the company returned it and claimed that the Indian government had not requested censorship, it did not provide details on why the hashtag was banned.

These incidents – which took place within days of each other as criticism of India’s government reached its peak – highlight the shrinking space of opposition in the world’s largest democracy. Such as Social unrest Against the increasingly authoritarian government, it has launched a campaign on social media, one of the last remaining free spaces for citizens to express their opinions. new Systems The government has given sweeping powers to restrict content, forcing US tech platforms, which view India as a major market, to strike a balance between growth and freedom of expression.

This is not the first time that an Indian government has attempted to censor speech over the Internet. In 2012, before Modi took office, the United Progressive Alliance’s government of India Command Internet service providers block more than a dozen accounts on Twitter, including those of People From Right

In February, the government of India Command Twitter removed more than 250 tweets that criticized the government’s handling of protests over the new agricultural laws. Although Twitter has blocked most accounts, it has unblocked those of journalists, activists and politicians, despite threats from prison from the Indian government.

The current internet censorship in India is directly related to social criticism of government policies.

“But now, there is an increase in the frequency and scope of censorship required,” Abar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation for the Digital Rights Organization, told BuzzFeed News. The current internet censorship in India is directly related to social criticism of government policies.

Over the weekend, India’s Ministry of Information Technology attempted to explain its reasons in a Word document other than a site it shared with the press, accessed by BuzzFeed News.

The “[g]The memo said the government welcomes criticism and genuine requests for assistance as well as suggestions in the collective struggle against COVID19. “But it is imperative to take action against those users who misuse social media during this grave humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes.”

The ministry cited a handful of 53 tweets it ordered that they be blocked as examples of problematic content. There are four tweets describing the Coronavirus pandemic as a conspiracy theory, and four other tweets containing “old and unrelated photos of patients and bodies.” At least two of these four cases are true examples of the disinformation, fact checkers from Indian outlets Alt News and Newschecker who examined the photos said for BuzzFeed News.

In an example of how weak the line is between removing dangerous rumors and imposing censorship on political expression, the ministry did not provide any explanations for any other content it ordered to be canceled. BuzzFeed News’s examination of the remaining tweets showed that at least some of them appeared to be legitimate criticisms of India’s prime minister. One of the restricted tweets, for example, belongs to Mawlawi Gatak, a minister from West Bengal state. Modi is accused of mismanaging the epidemic and exporting vaccines when there is a shortage in India.

Neither Gatak nor the Ministry of Information Technology responded to requests for comment

One of the tweets in India belongs to Pawan Khaira, the national spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The tweet, published on April 12, shows pictures from the Kumbh Mela rally, a Hindu religious gathering held earlier this month, during which millions of people bathed in a river even as coronavirus cases rose rapidly. Both ordinary Indians and the world press have criticized the government of India for allowing the gathering. In his tweet, Khaira compares India’s lack of reaction to the Kumbh Mela to an incident last year, when members of an Islamic grouping were accused of spreading the Coronavirus when the country had fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases.

Why was my Tweet blocked? He said good to BuzzFeed News. “This is the answer I need from the government of India.”

“What laws am I violating? What rumors am I spreading? Where is the cause of panic? Said well, who sent a message Legal request To the Ministry of Information Technology and Twitter this week.

“If I don’t get a response from them, I will bring them to court.”

He said, “If I don’t get any response from them, I will try them.” “I need legal help to protect my freedom of expression.”

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts said the ministry’s memo did not provide sufficient justification for ordering social media platforms to monitor posts. “Since when did the government start sending out notices of removal due to misinformation?” Asked Pratek Sinha, Alt News editor. And why are these tweets only cited [out of 53]? ”

Social media platforms weren’t the only places to witness a crackdown. Over the past few weeks, volunteer networks of WhatsApp and Telegram groups have proliferated to amplify calls for help, giving people access to medical oxygen, life-saving medicines, and hospital beds across the country. But over the past few days, some of them have resolved. according to Report On the Indian news site Quint, the volunteers running these groups have received calls from people claiming to be from Delhi Police demanding that they shut it down.

Delhi Police Refusal That is, but by then, people were horrified. A network of WhatsApp groups run by more than 300 volunteers was disbanded days ago even though they never received a call. “We decided not to take the risk,” the group’s founder, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. ”[I felt] Frustration and anger. “

One of the biggest problems with this situation, experts said, was the lack of transparency – from both government and platforms. Last week, Twitter revealed details of the IT department’s order regarding Lumen, a database at Harvard University that allows companies to disclose takedown notices from governments around the world. But Facebook, Instagram and Google have not commented on the alleged censorship in one of their biggest markets, either to the public or on BuzzFeed News when asked.

“They haven’t even issued a general statement on this topic,” said Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “The primary duty of transparency rests with the government, but there was no transparency whatsoever on the part of the platforms.”

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