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 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.
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.”
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.”