India’s Censorship

In the summer of 2021, NPR ran an article that discussed how Twitter referred to the May 24th raid on its New Delhi office as an “intimidation tactic” by the Indian police due to misinformation that opposition politicians allegedly tweeted. The Indian constitution provides the right to freedom of speech, yet it bans the expression or publication of anything that risks India’s security, public order, or decency. However, NPR, in its article, informs that “Prime Minister Modi has introduced a long list of new IT rules going beyond this,” which requires the social media platform to take down any post that goes against the rule if the Indian government orders it. In addition to identifying the original source of information, the executive can be held liable.

With a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, India has become one of Twitter’s largest markets. However, the role of censorship under the Modi government in India came to fruition through the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which changed how the party and Modi would interact with the media at large. Sevanti Ninan explains that Modi was able to sidestep critics alongside coopting media houses because there was a selection of handpicked journalists who could set up an interview with pre-screened questions, often only writing answers while there were no press conferences. This left the media establishment needing the government rather than the government needing the mainstream media, ensuring the relationship benefited the government rather than speaking truth to power. This self-censorship led to the Times of India and The Economic Times taking down the report from the Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom report that explained journalists were less free under Modi’s government because of threats derived from Hindutva nationalists.

Most recently, BBC news released a documentary concerning Prime Minister Modi that focused on the prime minister’s role in Gujarat during the religious riots in 2002 as the state’s chief minister. To ensure that the Indian citizenry was not able to see the documentary, the Indian government issued directives, as reported by Foreign Policy, “to YouTube and Twitter under the country’s technology law,” which demanded they take down links to the documentary. Government advisors to the nation informed the public at large through Twitter under the handle @KanchanGupta that “Videos sharing @BBCWorld hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as ‘documentary,’ on @YouTube and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules,” on January 21st, 2023. A spokesperson for the platform YouTube informed Foreign Policy that the documentary of Prime Minister Modi had been blocked due to a copyright claim by the BBC; however, the spokesperson declined to confirm if the Indian government had demanded the removal.

Nevertheless, the opposition Congress Party at a local branch in the state of Kerala, India, screened the documentary. The Times reported that the opposition, along with others and free speech activists across India, organized screenings nationwide. The screening on Thursday had come after New Delhi’s police arrested nearly a dozen students at Jamila Millia Islamia university ahead of a planned screening. However, this wasn’t the only university where students screened or tried to screen the documentary. The University of Hyderabad is investigating a documentary screening, and Jawaharlal Nehru University students in New Delhi reported that their power and internet were cut to ensure they could not screen the documentary.

Even though India provides a lucrative market for tech companies, Prime Minster Modi’s government has actively worked to censor critics of their administration. Western tech companies must realize that the government of India has reached the precipitous of no return. A democracy must be open to criticism by the fourth estate and its citizen. It is the pinnacle of a free democratic state. Tech companies such as YouTube and Twitter must come to the same realization as they would in the United States. Therefore, tech companies must stand for democracy and freedom of the press in India instead of turning their back on it.