Days after the Centre asked Twitter and YouTube to remove links to a BBC documentary examining the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2002 Gujarat riots, it is still to issue a public statement spelling out reasons for the decision.
The government used emergency powers available under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, to issue directions to block clips of the documentary from being shared.
Under the rules, the Centre has to share reasons for issuing blocking orders in writing, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
Using the Right to Information, Venkatesh Nayak, the director of the human rights organisation, had sought details of previous blocking orders issued by the government. But the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting invoked the national security exemption under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act to refuse to publish previous blocking orders, Nayak said.
The Centre also refused to publish the details that form the basis of the IT Rules 2021 Inter-Departmental Committee’s decision to block content on digital and social media platforms, Nayak added.
One of the provisions under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, grants powers to government to block any content on social and digital media platforms on the basis of a specific recommendation submitted by the authorised officer, in case of an emergency, without issuing notice to the platforms.
The BBC documentary is the latest to face blocking action under the IT Rules, 2021. While the documentary was not made available in India, it was uploaded on several YouTube channels and shared widely on Twitter.
Kanchan Gupta, a senior advisor in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, had said on January 21 that the government ordered social media platforms to take down links sharing the documentary on the basis that it was “undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India” and “making unsubstantiated allegations”.
Lack of parliamentary scrutiny
Meanwhile, a response under the Right to Information inquiry made by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative also showed that these rules have not been scrutinised by Parliamentary committees as required by the IT Act 2000.
The Information Technology Rules were notified under the Information Technology Act, 2000. The Act requires the Centre to table every rule in both Houses of Parliament as soon as it is notified. The tabled rules then undergo scrutiny in both Houses.
However, according to the response to the RTI application, the Parliamentary Committees on Subordinate Legislation did not select Information Technology Rules, 2021, for detailed scrutiny in its sessions.
“The reluctance of the Union Government to be more transparent about its actions while and after blocking content on social and digital media platforms, including the latest action against the BBC documentary film only gives rise to suspicion about its intentions,” said Nayak.
He added: “If the Government believes it has an iron-clad case to invoke its powers under the 2021 Rules to block such content, it must make such orders and all materials public.”
The BBC documentary
On January 17, BBC’s Channel Two released the first episode of its two-part documentary India: The Modi Question. The documentary cites a report by the British inquiry team that was sent to Gujarat in 2002 to share its findings on the communal riots.
In February and March 2002, large-scale communal violence had erupted across Gujarat after the coach of the Sabarmati Express train returning from Ayodhya was allegedly burned by a mob in Godhra. Official records show that 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots.
At the time Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state.
The documentary claims that the British inquiry team’s report found Modi directly responsible for creating a climate of impunity that led to the deaths of Muslims in the state. The British inquiry team alleged that Modi had prevented the Gujarat Police from acting to stop violence targeted at Muslims, the BBC documentary claimed.
However, a closure report by a Special Investigation Team appointed by India’s Supreme Court to inquire into the violence said in February 2012 that there was no prosecutable evidence against Modi and 63 others. A magistrate accepted the team’s report in 2013.
Last week, India’s Ministry of External Affairs dismissed the documentary as a “propaganda piece”.