The Centre on Wednesday sent a notice to Twitter for restoring accounts which used a certain hashtag linked to the farmers’ protest, The Indian Express reported. The government had on Monday directed the microblogging platform to withhold around 250 such accounts.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology warned Twitter that there will be consequences of not complying with “directions issued under section 69A of Information Technology Act”.
“The direction to block the hashtag ‘#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide’ has been found to be instigating people to commit cognisable offences in relations to public order and security of the state,” the ministry said in its notice to Twitter. “It may be noted that the impracticability or the disproportionality of the said measure cannot be decided [by] Twitter which is an intermediary bound by the orders of the Central government.”
The government said that Twitter was obliged to adhere to the authorities’ directions about what content could impact public order, India Today reported. “Twitter cannot sit as an appellate authority over the satisfaction of the authorities about its potential impact on derailing public order,” it added. “Twitter cannot assume the role of court and justify non-compliance. It may face penal action for not complying with government orders.”
The Centre added that the microblogging site had unilaterally restored the accounts and tweets, despite orders to withhold them.
‘No transparency, respect for rights’
Internet rights lawyer Raman Chima criticised the Centre’s notice to Twitter. “Instead of threatening social media platforms, the Government of India – especially the Ministry of Electronics and IT – needs to explain why blocking entire handles and seeking the banning of hashtags does not violate the Indian Constitution,” he tweeted. “No transparency, no respect for rights.”
Chima also spoke out against the targeting of media. “Let’s also be honest that many of the Twitter handles apparently listed in the Government of India’s orders included reporting and media and much of it with no links to the incitement-of-genocide related fears that so upset the Union government,” he added. “Censoring press on social media is not okay.”
He said the arguments made by the Centre to seek withdrawal of accounts, citing worries about genocide, is “completely warped and reprehensible”.
“You can choose to disagree, correct, ridicule, or engage with such fears, outcry,” he wrote. “Seeking to ban and precensor such discussions is a travesty of India’s Constitution + international human rights law. This is not what 21st Century India should permit, nor what our founders envisaged.”
Chima said the Ministry of Electronics and IT should release all its directives for asking to suspend accounts. “Don’t hide; explain and justify how this is not unconstitutional,” he added.
Medianama founder Nikhil Pahwa pointed out the arbitrariness of Centre’s notice. “We don’t know when, how or by whom these orders were issued, or exactly why,” he tweeted. “We don’t know when, how, why or by whom these ban orders were revoked. We don’t know if these orders were thought through or arbitrary.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs and law enforcement agencies had directed Twitter to withhold certain handles to prevent any escalation of law and order situation during the farmers’ agitation.
As a result, around 250 accounts tweeting or retweeting with the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag and making “fake, intimidatory and provocative posts” were blocked on Monday. The Twitter handles of Caravan magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha were among those withheld.
Some more accounts associated with the farmers protest were also been blocked. These include farmers’ group Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan and Tractor to Twitter. CPI(M) Puducherry’s handle was also withheld. However, these accounts were restored within a few hours.
The government has clamped down on farmers’ protest in the aftermath of the violence during the Republic Day tractor rally. The Delhi Police has also tried block access to farmers’ protest sites at the borders with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh by digging ditches, driving nails into roads and topping concrete barricades with razor wire.
The police have also deployed massive security personnel at the three protest sites – Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also ordered the shutdown of internet services in the three border areas since Saturday, while the Haryana government has cut off connectivity in seven districts at least until Wednesday evening.
The crackdown on the farmers’ peaceful agitation has also sparked international outrage. Pop star Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg are among those who have expressed support for the farmers.