General

India clamps down on free speech to fight farmer protests

When Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan, India’s leading investigating magazine, logged onto Twitter on Monday, he was shocked to find the magazine’s account blocked.

Jose was already dealing with a case of sedition and other charges against him, the magazine owners and a freelance journalist. At the heart of the allegations is the magazine’s coverage of the ongoing farmers’ protests that have gripped India for more than two months.

As the farmers camp out at the edges of the capital, protesting new agricultural laws they say will devastate their earnings, the mainstream and social media have come under unprecedented attacks from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Critics say it has used the massive demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech, detaining journalists and freezing Twitter accounts.

“It’s a very chilling development for the press,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.

Jose shared a screenshot of the blocked account from his personal handle. Soon outrage ensued. Activists, journalists and media watchdogs rushed to condemn Twitter, which said it had acted upon a “valid legal request” issued by an Indian authority.

Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers’ union, were suspended on Monday. Some, including The Caravan’s, have since been restored.

Offline, at least nine journalists have been charged in the last few weeks for covering the protests.

The trigger for the clampdown was the death of a protester, Navneet Singh, when the largely peaceful rallies turned violent on Jan. 26 after a group of farmers veered from an agreed protest route and stormed New Delhi’s 17th century Red Fort. Hundreds of police and farmers were injured in clashes.

Farmer leaders condemned the violence but refused to call off the protest.

Authorities say no shots were fired and that Singh died because his tractor overturned. His family alleged he was fatally shot. Their account has been published by several outlets, including The Caravan.

Ministers in Modi’s government accused the journalists and a prominent opposition parliamentarian of inciting hatred and endangering the nation’s integrity through inaccurate reporting and tweets. It led to the filing of colonial-era sedition charges, which carry a maximum five-year prison term.

The law, like its equivalent in other former British colonies, is viewed as draconian and was revoked in the United Kingdom in 2010.

Prosecutions on sedition charges are rare but their use to silence journalists, critics and dissenters in India isn’t new and previous governments had resorted to it. But official data shows that Modi’s government has used the law more than any other – up by nearly 30%. It has also repeatedly rejected demands to repeal it.

Calls and messages seeking comment from four BJP spokespersons went unanswered, Calls to the party’s media office also were unsuccessful.

Media watchdogs and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, condemned the government’s actions as censorship. The Editors Guild of India said the cases against journalists were “an attempt to intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media.”