ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Why Dozens of 'X' Accounts of Farmers & Tribal Activists Are Now 'Withheld'

"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

Updated
India
7 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large
Hindi Female

As the 'Dilli Chalo' march takes centre-stage, many more social media accounts of farmers and journalists from Punjab and Haryana, even Dalit activists and local organisations continue to be blocked. "A devious plan at work," said farmer and activist Gurpreet Sangha, whose two accounts were blocked on X (formerly Twitter).

Accounts like Tractor to Twitter, a digital news portal known for its support of farmer's rights or Gaon Savera, journalist Mandeep Punia and tribal activist Hansraj Meena have been abruptly suspended.

This move coincided with reports of protesting farmers sustaining injuries at Shambhu and Khanauri border, visuals of indiscriminate use of pellet guns have also come forth. One farmer was also killed at Khanauri, allegedly due to a bullet.

Sangha found two of his accounts (@FarmStudioz and @FarmStudiozz) blocked and then received an email informing him about the same.

  • Farm leader Gurpreet Sangha's accounts suspended.

    (Photo: The Quint)

"We got this email notice but it was after our accounts were blocked. Earlier, it was not like this. Before, we were informed the norms our tweets violated, sometimes we could remove those tweets or respond too. This is when it was Jack Dorsey's Twitter. But now when you get an email, there's no way out or a redressal."
Gurpreet Sangha to The Quint
"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

Email sent to Sangha over his account being blocked.

(Photo: The Quint)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

'They Only Want One-Sided Voices'

The farmers of Punjab and Haryana have been protesting since 13 February to press their demand of a law guaranteeing a minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural commodities, amidst other demands.

Along with Sangha, many more accounts were blocked.

He stated, "First, Ramandeep Mann's account was blocked on 12 February, then Tejveer Singh, then mine, then Mandeep Punia and then a DU Jat union's account too. Then the number kept on increasing. There are over 200 accounts that have been blocked so far."

Sangha has now opened a third account on X (@FarmStuiozzz).

"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

More accounts of farmers, journalists suspended.

(Photo: The Quint)

  • X Account of chairman of farmer's union.

    (Photo: The Quint)

Sangha believes that the move isn't limited to only blocking social media accounts, but it is 'more sinister' in reality.

"This is also not just about our social media accounts being blocked as a punishment or to stop someone's livelihood, the game behind this is a lot more sinister. A devious plan is at work as to how to suppress our voices. On one side, Godi media is been given permission to spread wrong information and on the other side, voices of farmers are completely muzzled," observed Sangha.

As per a Hindustan Times report, the ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity) finalised its emergency blocking orders against 177 social media accounts and links related to the farmers’ protests on Monday to maintain “public order."

The orders have reportedly been issued against 35 Facebook links, 35 Facebook accounts, 14 Instagram accounts, 42 X accounts, 49 X links, 1 Snapchat and 1 Reddit account.

An independent journalist, Mahesh Choudhary who also verified this with IT ministry and confirmed with The Quint that the government had decided on a list on 8 and 9 February, to suspend the accounts of many farmers. (The same as the one decided during the 2021 farmers protests). On Monday, 19 February, in an internal meeting, they came with out a revised list to block more accounts.

Meanwhile, the official account of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee wrote on X about the platform withholding two of their posts.

They added, "The concerned department of Government of India must clarify about what is 'unlawful' as per IT Act, 2000, in the content of our X posts."

"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

Manoj Singh Duhan of the Unionist Sikh Mission.

(Photo: The Quint)

"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

Kisan Majdoor Morcha's X account.

(Photo: The Quint)

"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

BKU's farm leader Anuj Singh's account.

(Photo: The Quint)

'Dalit, Adivasi Voices Being Censored'

Along with the farmers, accounts of tribal activist Hansraj Meena and official account of 'Tribal Army' has also been blocked. This has led to an outrage on X, calling for restoration of their accounts.

"The larger picture is to not let our voices and narratives go out. When there will only be one voice from all avenues, people will start believing their version. That is what the government, TV media and some social media handles want.
Gurpreet Sangha to The Quint
0

Sangha added that handles are being tagged and disabled are pro-farmers, it is not being checked whether they are anti-national or offensive. There is considerable outrage against the withholding of these accounts, with several activists and politicians condemning it.

Condemning the action, Tribal Army came out with a press note asking, "is this not killing of democracy?" They mention that there were three posts by them were regarding PM Modi not being of OBC background, NCRB data on atrocities against Adivasis and on 'Laadli Behna' Yojana' on OBC students in Madhya Pradesh.

"In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," says lawyer Mishi Choudhary.

Tribal Army's reaction to blocking of their official account and that of Hansraj Meena.

(Photo: X/Twitter)

In 2021, during the last farmers' protests, X (then Twitter):had also withheld many such accounts in response to a 'legal request' and then had later restored some of them, this included Kisan Ekta Morcha and Hansraj Meena even then. Another round of action against accounts based in Punjab and among the Sikh diaspora took place during the crackdown against Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh.

'Such Blocking is Illegal; Amounts to Restraint of Speech'

Talking about how the accounts are suspended, Sangha said, "Because it's a private company, they send out these emails to protect themselves, but most farmers might have not checked their emails especially the ones who are on the frontline of the protests. They just know their accounts have been blocked. No recourse to justice to give any sort of explanation."

Blocking of these handles are done under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Meanwhile, Mishi Choudhary, technology lawyer and founder of Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) said, "Such a complete prohibition on the use of the Internet — a fundamental requirement in today's Digital India — is a complete prohibition and a disproportionate reaction by the state. If all protests can be categorized as a public emergency or a matter of public safety, then how are citizens to exercise the right of peaceful assembly?"

Speaking with The Quint, Prasanth Sugathan, the legal director at SFLC said, "In most cases, the emergency provision under the blocking rules are used. The platforms do not have much of a say once these orders are issued. Twitter had earlier challenged such orders in the Karnataka High Court. However, this was not successful."

"Such preemptive blocking is illegal and amounts to prior restraint of speech. In most cases, the persons whose handles are blocked are not even served with a copy of the order. "
Prasanth Sugathan to The Quint

Calling it a selective detention of speech," Prateek Waghre, Executive Director at Internet Freedom Foundation noted, "Instead of identifying specific posts and clearly justifying how they may violate the conditions set out in Section 69A of the IT ACT, authorities are censoring future speech from certain individuals and organisations by relying on over broad interpretations."

That the process is shrouded in secrecy due to confidentiality requirements baked into the Blocking Rules of 2009 also impacts the ability of those affected to seek recourse, he told The Quint.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

In one of its reports last year, SFLC had stated that the biggest share of website blocking is done under section 69A of the IT Act with MEITY blocking over 26,300 websites.

Moreover, the current Review Committee that reviews blocking orders has a skewed composition as it "only consists of members from the executive branch."

Early morning on Thursday, 22 February, X issued a statement saying that while it is complying with the Indian government's requests to withhold accounts, it "doesn't agree" with the move.

When Rule 16 Comes In...

Sugathan stated that that the platforms are prevented from sharing the copy of the orders as per the confidentiality provision under Rule 16 of the blocking rules. "They will have to file a writ petition before a High Court to challenge it," he noted.

Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 mandates confidentiality to be maintained with respect to all the information related to website blocking.

Talking about this Rule 16 of confidentiality, Choudhary remarked, "This black hole is continuously exploited by GoI to carefully curate information available to Indians. Platforms like Twitter are no longer governed by folks who show any commitment to users' rights. Others like Meta are quick to cite hostage taking laws as they know all requests."

"In this 21st century, users are stuck in a Kafkaesque theater of oppressive governments and powerful platforms. In an election year, such censorship without any transparency is extremely worrisome," noted Choudhary.

(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.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from news and india

Published: 
Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
×
×