Several media watchdogs have condemned the Indian government’s decision to ban a BBC documentary criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and have criticized the use of emergency powers to prevent clips from being viewed or shared online in India.
An adviser to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said on Saturday that Twitter and YouTube have been asked to block links to the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, which the government previously labeled a “propaganda piece”.
The documentary questions Modi’s leadership as prime minister during riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, which killed about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Human rights activists estimate the number at some 2,500.
The International Press Institute (IPI) expressed its “alarm” on Wednesday about authorities invoking emergency laws to block the documentary, saying the country’s IT rules for 2021 give the government “expanded and unchecked powers” to control online content and monitor and censor news broadcasts.
“The Modi government is clearly abusing emergency powers under IT rules to penalize or limit any criticism of its policies,” said Amy Brouillette, the IPI Director of Advocacy.
“We urge private platforms to continue to oppose the overly broad and unjustified censorship demands of the Modi government,” she continued. “Online platforms must ensure that their compliance with such demands does not contribute to the government’s ongoing campaign to silence critics, journalists and activists in India.”
The social media giants — Twitter and YouTube — complied with the government’s order.
Last week, the government proposed an IT rule change that would require platforms to remove content deemed “fake or false” by the government to protect “national sovereignty” and public order.
These latest moves are part of a wider assault on press freedom in India since Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
On Monday, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) said ordering social media platforms to block the documentary “constitutes an attack on the free press that blatantly contradicts the country’s stated commitment to democratic ideals.”
“Authorities must immediately restore full and unrestricted access to the documentary and repeal regulations under the Information Technology Act that endanger press freedom and freedom of expression online,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator.
Shrinking space for freedom of expression
For digital rights activists and organizations in India, the government’s censorship of the documentary – invoking Rule 16 under the 2021 IT rules – has been a long time coming.
“Most of the actions taken by the authorities between December 2021 and April 2022 were against [social media] channels that were not based in India, as far as you could tell where a YouTube channel was based,” Prateek Waghre, director of policy at the watchdog Internet Freedom Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
“From April, we have seen incidents based on channels in India. Once that shift began, the question was always which domestic dissident voices could be targeted next.
The ministry reportedly exercised emergency censorship powers under Rule 16 of the IT Rules, 2021.
— Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) (@internetfreedom) January 21, 2023
Successive governments have always found ways to deal with dissent or opposition, but under Modi, control of social media channels has been legalized.
“While you could argue that there must indeed be an element of control, what is happening in India has largely been executive,” Waghre said. “There is a lot of discretionary control at the executive level with minimal oversight. And that is where the concern lies.”
The policy director said the space for vocal opposition from civil society and the media has become “ever smaller”.
“Companies tend not to take a hostile attitude in public, but we’re not sure to what extent they challenge government orders behind closed doors,” explains Waghre.
One exception is Twitter, which is currently suing the Indian government over content removal orders issued last summer. But given the recent new owner of the social media giant, it remains to be determined whether the company will be willing to continue its business in the long run.
‘Voice of dissent’
Meanwhile, students across the country have pledged to screen the documentary in every Indian state, a day after the campus screening at Jawaharlal Nehru University was disrupted by a power cut and harassment by opponents.
“They will not stop the voice of dissent,” said Mayukh Biswas, general secretary of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University on Tuesday issued a warning against unapproved student gatherings ahead of SFI’s scheduled screening of the BBC documentary on Wednesday evening, NDTV reported.
According to the broadcaster, the police detained more than a dozen students there about an hour before the screening.
Delhi police did not immediately confirm whether students were detained but said there was a heavy deployment of police and security forces in riot control gear at the university.
The commitment was “to maintain law and order” both because of the screening and India’s Republic Day on January 26, police said.