Internet censorship

No clear explanation: Why Facebook blocked a Kannada newspaper twice in the last 30 days

The social media firm called it a technical error, but Vartha Bharati’s editor-in-chief says it was nothing short of censorship.

In the past month, Facebook blocked Vartha Bharati, a 14-year-old Kannada language newspaper headquartered in Mangaluru, from sharing its content on two occasions. Restrictions were imposed for the first time for eight days from June 20 to June 27. The publication’s Facebook page was blocked a second time for a period of one month starting July 10, but it was lifted within a day. Both times, an alert appeared on Vartha Bharati’s Facebook page: “Your page has been blocked from sharing links. This could be due to activity from your page that doesn’t comply with Facebook’s policies.”

Abdussalam Puthige, editor-in-chief of Vartha Bharati, said the restrictions were nothing short of censorship. “It violated freedom of speech and expression,” he added, alleging that Facebook might have based its actions on reports against the newspaper by Right-wing online media campaigners.

“We have published reports on matters that affect Muslims, Dalits, farmers and women that are ignored by the mainstream media,” Puthige said. “Besides, we exposed the Right-wing’s fake news propaganda. It might have angered them and, hence, the mass reporting.”

He added, “All the restrictions placed on us have been lifted now. But we expect it to happen anytime.”

The action against Vartha Bharati comes at a time of heightened concern over media and internet censorship across the country, and coincides with similar steps taken by Facebook against a magazine in Kashmir. On July 8, the company removed Kashmir Ink’s cover image of slain militant Burhan Wani from its Facebook page, which was also blocked for a day.

Facebook blocked Vartha Bharati for eight days in June.
Facebook blocked Vartha Bharati for eight days in June.

Facebook has since apologised for blocking Vartha Bharati, calling it a “technical error”.

A spokesperson for the social media company said in a statement issued to Scroll.in, “We’re very sorry about the mistake. The post was removed in error and restored as soon as we were able to investigate. Our team processes millions of reports each week, and sometimes we get things wrong.”

The spokesperson did not respond when Scroll.in pointed out it was not just a single post that had been blocked. The company also did not divulge details about the restrictions.

No explanation

Vartha Bharati’s editor-in-chief accused Facebook of failing to provide clear answers for its actions and of not giving the media house a chance to explain itself despite repeated requests.

In a letter to Facebook, Puthige wrote, “Facebook hasn’t shown the basic courtesy to respond to our queries and listen to our explanations. If there are specific charges against us, is it not our right to know the charges so that we could state the facts?”

He added, “I suspect that Facebook is favouring Right-wing outfits in India.”

Appeals against the ban received an automated reply from Facebook that read, “Your page has been restricted for causing people to like or engage with it unintentionally in a misleading way. Our Page Terms state that: ‘Pages must not contain false, misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive claims or content’. All pages must comply with the Facebook Guidelines.”

Facebook's response to the restrictions imposed on Vartha Bharati.
Facebook's response to the restrictions imposed on Vartha Bharati.

Vartha Bharati’s chief executive officer Mohammed said the restrictions had caused the newspaper losses both in terms of traffic and revenue. “Traffic to our website became very low during the nine days,” Mohammed said.

The newspaper, launched in 2003 and printed simultaneously from Mangaluru and Bengaluru, has a daily print order of over one lakh while its website draws more than 86,000 likes on Facebook.

‘Not the first time’

Other online media organisations condemned Facebook’s actions against Vartha Bharati.

Geeta Seshu, the Mumbai-based consulting editor of media watch website The Hoot, called it censorship of the worst kind. “It is incredibly arrogant and no excuses for this,” she told Scroll.in.

Seshu said such an incident should force media organisations to think about diverse media platforms. “The world accesses news through social media platforms these days,” she said. “Media organisations are heavily dependent on them. Imagine what would happen to the world if Facebook and Twitter pulled the plug on social media all of a sudden. There would be a virtual catastrophe. They have a larger responsibility today and they need to be held accountable for it.”

Seshu alleged that Facebook’s actions were not transparent at all. “It should make public who is checking the Page Guidelines and how the company is reinforcing them,” she said.

According to Pratik Sinha, editor of Alt News, a fact-checking website, this is not the first time that Facebook has failed to explain its actions. “No one knows whom to contact when such problems crop up,” said Sinha, whose Facebook page was blocked four times in the past for “violating community standards”.

He said Facebook should have first issued a warning if it had a problem with Vartha Bharati’s stories. “It should have been done in a democratic way, there should be a mechanism to deal with mass reporting,” he added. “But unfortunately, everything is opaque in Facebook.”

An online campaign in support of Vartha Bharati.
An online campaign in support of Vartha Bharati.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.