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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.