After nearly six hours of being withheld, several Twitter accounts including The Caravan, Kisan Ekta Morcha, CPI(M) leader Md Salim’s and several farmer leaders’ came back to life on Monday evening.
At around 2:30 pm on 1 February, following a spate of FIRs against journalists and news portals over their coverage of farmers’ protests, several Twitter accounts, including those of The Caravan and the Kisan Ekta Morcha (the official page for the farmers’ agitation), had been ‘withheld in India in response to a legal demand’.
News agency ANI, quoting sources, said the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) had directed Twitter to block around 250 tweets/Twitter accounts, which the government claimed were using #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag and making fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets on 30 January.
In a response to The Quint’s query, a Twitter spokesperson said, “If we receive a properly scoped request from an authorised entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”
No Explanation From Twitter
Many other accounts of activists and others like actor Sushant Singh, Md Asif Khan and Hansraj Meena were also restored. The account of Shashi Shekhar Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati, India’s largest public broadcasting service, was also withheld and later restored.
In the intervening six hours while The Caravan’s official account was withheld, the magazine came back via the VPN route under a new handle called ‘The Caravan, Uncensored’.
In a tweet, the handle wrote, “This account is accessing @thecaravanindia from a VPN server based outside India and will be duplicating its tweets until the Indian Government and @TwitterIndia continues the account inside India. #DefeatTwitterCensorship”
Vinod Jose, editor-in-chief of The Caravan said they were not aware of any communication from Twitter, and will be writing to the social media platform for further clarity.
“We did not receive any prior intimation of this,” The Caravan stated in a post on its Instagram handle.
“At 3.10 pm, Twitter Legal sent us an email saying that Twitter has received a ‘legal removal demand’ that claims our account ‘violates the law(s) of India’.” It said that Twitter is in communication with the authorities who issued this demand, the post further stated.
“This notification leaves unanswered questions. Twitter policies state that when the company receives a request to withhold an account, it has to notify the account in question,” Caravan said.
Twitter, however, in a statement to The Quint had stated it will ‘promptly notify the affected account holders upon receipt of requests to withhold content’. However this has an exception. “Unless we are prohibited from doing so, e.g. if we receive a court order under seal),” a Twitter spokesperson said in their statement.
Baljit Singh, head of IT for the farmers’ agitation, says private accounts of some other activists connected with the protest have also been withheld.
‘Upon Receipt of Properly Scoped Request From Authorised Entity’: Twitter
When asked about the large-scale blackout of accounts on Monday afternoon, Twitter, told The Quint in a statement, “In our effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a properly scoped request from authorised entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country.
Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we've a notice policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify the affected account holders (unless we are prohibited from doing so, e.g. if we receive a court order under seal).”
According to Twitter's rules, an account can only be withheld based on a valid legal demand such as a court order. At this time, it is unclear which court in India has issued such an order.
The news agency further said that according to their sources, “This was done on the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs and law enforcement agencies to prevent any escalation of law and order in view of the ongoing farmer agitation.”
“Incitement to genocide is a grave threat to public order and therefore the Ministry of Electronics & IT ordered for blocking of these Twitter accounts and tweets under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Twitter has blocked these Tweets/Twitter Accounts,” ANI said quoting sources.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan, denied that the publication ever used any such hashtag from their official account.
FIRs against Journalists, Media Houses
Recently, a number of FIRs were filed against journalists and media houses, including Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today, Siddharth Vardarajan of The Wire and The Caravan, for allegedly misreporting the death of a farmer on Republic Day.
Delhi Police has been criticised for cracking down on freedom of press, especially after a freelance journalist, Mandeep Punia, was arrested from the Singhu Border on Saturday, 30 January.
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)