How is free speech being curtailed during the pandemic by the Indian government?

This statement was originally published on sflc.in on 15 June 2021.

Censorship/Free Speech violations related to COVID-19 Pandemic

The following are the list of instances that point towards cencorship and free speech violations that have taken place in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic which was declared in March 2020.

Month Violation Source
March 2020 An oncologist in Kolkata posted a few photographs of doctors on social media who were wearing raincoats instead of medically appropriate gowns in a Covid-19 ward of a government hospital. Subsequently, he was detained by the police and was charged with causing communal disharmony and criminal intimidation. Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse
April 2020 Ever since the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, around 640 cases were registered for allegedly disseminating fake news and rumours on social media platforms. Police Crackdown on Covid-19 ‘Misinformation’, Activists Concerned, Hindustan Times (Apr. 30, 2020),
A case was filed by the Government of Assam against the reporter and publisher of a Bengali Newspaper that reported about the first COVID positive patient of the state under Section 188 of IPC as well as the provisions of Assam COVID-19 Regulation, 2020. A five-member committee consisting of officials from the information, health, police and disaster management departments was created by Assam DIPR to monitor the circulation of fake news in all forms of media. 52 cases of allegedly spreading rumours or posting objectionable comments on social media were registered and 25 people were arrested, as per the data available till April 8th. COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
June 2020 Around 55 journalists either faced legal actions in one form or another (FIRs, show causes, etc.) or became victims of vandalistic activities for exercising their freedom of speech and expression by reporting on the current pandemic in the span of 25 March to 31 May. Uttar Pradesh topped the list for most such violations followed by Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and various other states. The Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), India: Media’s Crackdown During COVID-19 Lockdown (June 15, 2020)
A sedition case was filed against senior journalist Vinod Dua over a YouTube broadcast of him criticizing the government’s implementation of the COVID lockdown. Arrest shield for Vinod Dua but SC won’t quash FIR (June 15, 2020)
February 2021 Through various orders since January 31, 2020, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has asked Twitter to disable over a thousand accounts under section 69A of the Information Technology Act for allegedly spreading rumours about the Farmers Protest. While Twitter complied initially, they made it clear that they won’t disable accounts of various media outlets, journalists, etc., as such an action would amount to infringement of the Fundamental Right of Free Speech and Expression. This was followed by the Government threatening its Indian employees with fines and jail terms and sending a notice of non-compliance to Twitter. Block 1,178 Handles, Says India. Protecting Free Speech, Twitter Responds (February 8, 2021) Updates on our response to blocking orders from the Indian Government (February 10, 2021) Twitter Unblocked Accounts That Criticized India’s Government. Now, Its Employees Are Being Threatened With Jail Time Unless It Blocks Them Again. (February 3, 2021)
April 2021 The government, on April 22nd, asked Twitter to censor 52 tweets which were critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Twitter complied with same on April 22nd, censoring tweets made by a state minister, a member of parliament from the opposition, people from the film fraternity and various ordinary people. The censored tweets included an article about a mass Hindu religious gathering held on the banks of the river Ganga during the recent spike in COVID cases and a cartoon depicting Prime Minister Modi making a speech over a burning coffin. Twitter Takes Down Tweets From MP, MLA, Editor Criticising Handling Of Pandemic Upon Government Request (April 24, 2021)
Uttar Pradesh CM warranted the use of NSA, 1980 and asked the officials to take strict action against people spreading rumours about oxygen shortage on social media. Latest salvo in the crisis of free speech in India (April 27, 2021)
Complying with the orders from the government to censor posts criticising its handling of the pandemic, Facebook temporarily blocked all posts including the hashtag “#ResignModi”, stating that such posts violated community standards. Subsequently, it unblocked all such posts stating that they were blocked by ‘mistake’ and not because of any government order. Facebook hid posts calling for PM Modi’s resignation in India ‘by mistake’ (April 29, 2021)
May 2021 UP police registered an FIR against the director of Sun Hospital on the basis of a notice of oxygen shortage released by the hospital, stating that the intention behind the notice was to promote black marketing and spread rumours. The FIR consisted of various sections of the Disaster Management Act 2005, the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 and the Indian Penal Code. UP Police Lodge FIR Against Lucknow Hospital Which Put Up ‘Oxygen Shortage’ Notice
Facebook blocked noted poet K Satchidanandan’s profile for 24 hours for allegedly violating community standards, as he shared a post criticising the Prime Minister as well as the Home Minister. The ban was lifted after 24 hours but he was restricted from going live on Facebook for an additional 30 days. Facebook temporarily blocks poet Satchidanandan for criticising PM Modi, Amit Shah
Instagram blocked a video by ‘Karwan-e-mohabbat’ consisting of Mahavir Narwal, talking about her daughter, JNU student and activist Natasha Narwal. Twitter Link
A daily wage earner, an e-rickshaw driver and a printer were among the 25 people arrested for allegedly pasting posters and banners which criticized the PM’s handling of the COVID pandemic. Arrested for anti-PM posters: daily wagers, printer, auto driver (May 16, 2021)
Keeping in view the rising cases of manipulated media, Twitter has started labelling certain content as manipulated media or removing them from the platform. The central government has severely criticised Twitter for labelling certain posts of some Indian politicians regarding COVID-19 efforts as manipulated media. Twitter labels some Indian politicians’ tweets about COVID-19 as manipulated media May 21, 2021
Recently, several posts are being uploaded on social media that mention the Indian variant of coronavirus. Keeping in view the rise and circulation of such posts, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has asked the social media platforms to take down all posts that name or refer to B.1.617 an Indian variant of the coronavirus. Remove content that mentions ‘Indian covid variant’: Centre writes to all social media platforms May 21, 2021
June 2021 Canadian-Punjabi singer Jazzy B’s Twitter account was blocked upon a request issued to Twitter by the Ministry of Home Affairs which reportedly cited that such blocking had to be done to prevent the escalation of law and order situation in view of the ongoing farmer agitation. https://twitter.com/themojostory/status/1402206236662140936 (June 8, 2021)

Legal basis for online censorship (Sections 69A & 79 IT Act, 2000)

Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 allows the Centre to block public access to an intermediary “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above”. The procedure for the same is listed in The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 hereafter referred to as the ‘Blocking Rules, 2009’. An intermediary in easy terms can be understood as any place where data is hosted, transmitted or created by users. They are entities which help in transferring content to end user. Internet Service Providers(ISP’s) such as Airtel, Vodafone, Excitel, then search engines such as Google, Duck Duck Go, DNS providers, Web hosts such as GoDaddy, Social Media websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedn are intermediaries., Cybercafes are also considered as Intermediaries.

Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 also known as the Safe harbour provision gives safe harbour protections for the act of third parties, provided that they observe certain due diligence while discharging their functions, including publication of privacy policy, user agreement, etc. “Intermediary Liability” refers to the allocation of legal responsibility to online platforms, for the content which is hosted on their platforms. Online intermediaries often find themselves locking horns with the Government on this issue. While the former claim that they are not responsible for the content on their website, the latter disagrees and tries to find ways to hold them accountable. This boils down to issues like allowing for the posting of hate speech by users. Currently, Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 protects intermediaries from being held liable in certain cases. These include cases where the intermediary does not initiate the transmission, select the receiver of the transmission, and select or modify the information contained in the transmission.

You can read about Intermediary guidelines here. You can also read more about the prominent cases on Intermediaries on the Free Speech Tracker.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (hereinafter “MEITY”) and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (hereinafter “MIB”) on 25.02.2021, notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. This has made a number of changes in the way content regulation works in India. You can read details about this here.

How is Speech being curtailed during the pandemic by the State

1. Website and Application Blocking – Website blocking is done using Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 coupled with The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 hereafter referred to as the ‘Blocking Rules, 2009’. You can read the detailed blog explaining the various rules here. One of the most problematic rule here is Rule 16 of the IT Blocking Rules 2009 which requires strict confidentiality to be maintained regarding all blocking requests by the government and the actions taken by an intermediary in response to said requests. Opacity/public inaccessibility of blocking request orders owing to Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules results in all blocking orders being shrouded in a cloak of secrecy thereby rendering any kind of judicial review of such blocking orders on grounds of free speech violations impossible. Rule 16 has also been wielded by MeitY to shield itself from RTI requests seeking disclosures of such blocking orders.

2. By ordering content takedown under Section 79 and Section 69A of the Information Technology Act
Prior to the notification of the 2021 rules called Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, content takedown could be done through two measures – Court order and a removal request by an authorised personnel in the Central Government. The new rules envisage additional measures for a content takedown which can be read here. The new rules envisage additional measures such as due dilligence, blocking information within a period of 36 hours and retention of information for a period of 180 days among others. You can read in detail on these rules here.

3. By imposing criminal liability – Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India lists the reasonable restrictions which are imposed on Freedom of Speech and Expression. These are the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Central legislation like the Indian Penal Code, 1860, criminalizes certain types of speech like sedition, defamation, hate speech to name a few. The Information Technology Act, 2000, regulates speech that takes place in the online sphere. State legislations like the Maharashtra Police Act were drafted keeping in mind the importance of controlling public tranquillity. A list providing an exhaustive list of legislation including the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and the Information Technology Act, 2000, and other acts governing speech in offline and online spaces is available here.

We believe that social media platforms take the role of public squares in the modern era. It is here that people from all walks of life gather to participate in democracy and express their views. There have been increasing instances of censorship by both state and non state actors. In order to hold institutions accountable, it is imperative that we get information first and maintain documentation of such instances. We would like you to tell us if you come across any information about content restriction in form of a story being taken down, a news source we have missed, a tweet, an Instagram/Facebook post, then please fill out the form. The link for the form is here.

The post How is free speech being curtailed during the pandemic by the Indian government? appeared first on IFEX.

Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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