Modi ramps up online censorship in India
With less than a year to go to parliamentary elections in India, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the government to guarantee the online free flow of verified information after it blocked online access to two news sites, The Kashmir Walla and Gaon Savera, in the space of six days.
19 August was a very bad day for the journalists at The Kashmir Walla, the leading investigative media outlet in northern India’s Jammu and Kashmir region : their website was inaccessible, their Facebook page had been suppressed and their account with X (previously known as Twitter) was blocked.
When they contacted their Internet service provider, they were told that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had quite simply blocked access to their site under the 2000 Information Technology Act. On what grounds? That is a mystery. As for their X account, it had been suspended “in response to a legal demand,” The Kashmir Walla reported in a press release the same day.
"The Indian authorities are showing an appalling lack of transparency, which is tarnishing their credibility", RSF was told by Tanmay Singh, senior litigation counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, India’s leading Internet rights NGO.
The nightmare didn’t stop there. When they arrived at their office later that day, The Kashmir Walla’s journalists discovered that their landlord had served an eviction notice with immediate effect. Yet again, no explanation was provided.
Five days later, on 24 August, it was the turn of the news website Gaon Savera to discover that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had blocked access to its social media accounts. The blocking of its Facebook and X accounts, which lasted five days, followed its coverage of protests by farmers in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, who are calling on the government to compensate them for the loss of their harvest as result of flooding since July.
“The Kashmir Walla and Gaon Savera are the latest victims of the Narendra Modi government’s policy of much tighter control over the online news ecosystem, which culminated in April in the adoption of a draconian amendment to the Information Technology Rules 2021. By censoring critical media in a completely arbitrary manner, Prime Minister Modi's government is tarnishing its credibility and is no longer hiding its desire to impose the ruling party line. The online free flow of news and information that has been verified by journalists’ reporting plays a crucial role in India’s democracy. We call on the Indian government to immediately restore access to The Kashmir Walla and Gaon Savera websites and social media, and to guarantee access to freely reported and reliable information online, starting with repeal of the Information Technology Rules 2021.
The amendment that the Indian government adopted in April on the pretext of combatting online disinformation allows it, in effect, to order Internet access providers and “social media intermediaries” such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube to take down any content which, in its view, provides “fake, false or misleading” information about “any business of the central government.”
“Cyberspace has been the frontline of narrative wars in India and elsewhere,” a Kashmiri journalist told RSF, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. “But in India specifically, after the government took complete control over established print media and TV news channels, the Internet is the only way remaining for citizens to be informed. So, the Modi government has, of course, brought in legislation for the tightest possible control of the Internet and social media platforms.”
For example, when an operation was launched to arrest Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh in March, the government suspended the social media accounts of more than a dozen journalists and media, including the Punjabi-language X account of the BBC, the British public broadcaster.
The government in New Delhi is also in the habit of ordering dramatic Internet shutdowns in entire regions in order to restrict the free flow of information on subjects it regards as sensitive. Repeated Internet shutdowns for years in Jammu and Kashmir have transformed the region into a news and information black hole.
The online censorship of The Kashmir Walla is the latest manifestation of the government’s hostility toward this media outlet, which it accuses of supporting “Kashmiri separatist terrorism” and of inciting the public to join the separatist cause.
Its editor, Fahad Shah, was arrested on 4 February 2022 and is facing a possible life sentence on a “sedition” charge. Four months after his arrest, interim editor Yashraj Sharma received a summons from the region’s counter-terrorism agency over an opinion piece published 11 years previously, in November 2011. The article’s author, Abdul Aala Fazili, an academic who often writes for the website, has himself been jailed since 12 April 2022.
Another Kashmir Walla journalist, Sajad Gul, was arrested in January 2021 for a tweet containing video of protests linked to the death of a separatist activist. Granted bail a year later, he was re-arrested on his release from prison and was charged under the public security law. He also faces possible life imprisonment.
The history of The Kashmir Walla closes parallels “the decline of freedom of information in Kashmir”, its journalists says.