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COVID-19 is destroying India. Its government is trying to censor social media.

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On April 29, 2021, a worker adjusts the funeral pyre of a person who died of COVID-19 during a mass cremation in a New Delhi crematorium.

India, a country with 1.4 billion people, has been enveloped by a deadly second wave of epidemics coronavirus Pandemic. But even if its health care system is out of breath, its crematorium is burning with thousands of cremation piles, and its leaders are scrambling to censor the Internet.

Last week, the Indian IT Department order Twitter prohibits seeing more than 50 tweets in the country.After a few days, the New York Times, This Wall Street Journal,as well as Times of India The report said that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube also deleted posts criticizing the government.In the past week, ordinary people who run WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds have complain The threats that demand them to shut them down, and the police in Uttar Pradesh Lodge a complaint A man asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming that he was “spreading misleading information.”Wednesday, posts tagged #ResignModi Disappeared A few hours from Facebook. Although the company restored it and claimed that the Indian government did not request its review, it did not provide detailed information about why the hashtag was blocked.

These events occurred within a few days, as the criticism of the Indian government reached a climax – highlighting the shrinking space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy.As social chaos In the face of an increasingly authoritarian government, it has cracked down on social media, which is one of the last free spaces for citizens to express their opinions.new Stipulate Giving the government broad powers to restrict content has forced the US technology platform, which sees India as a key market, to strike a balance between growth and freedom of speech.

This is not the first time the Indian government has tried to censor online speech. In 2012, before Modi came to power, India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government order Internet service providers blocked more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to right-wing individuals.

“But now, the frequency and scale of censorship requirements are increasing,” Appal Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organization, told BuzzFeed News. “The current Internet censorship in India is directly related to society’s criticism of government policies.”

In February, the Government of India order Twitter removed more than 250 tweets criticizing how the government handled protests against the new agricultural law. Although Twitter blocked most accounts, it disregarded the threat of imprisonment from the Indian government and lifted the blockade of journalists, activists and politicians.

“The current Internet censorship in India is directly related to society’s criticism of government policies.”

Last weekend, the Indian IT Ministry tried to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document shared with the media, which was accessed by BuzzFeed News.

This”[g]The government welcomes criticism, genuine requests for help, and suggestions for a collective fight against COVID19,” the note said. “But it is necessary to take action against users who abuse social media for unethical purposes during this severe humanitarian crisis. “

The ministry cited some of the 53 tweets it ordered to block as examples of problematic content. Four tweets called the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory, and four tweets contained “old and unrelated visual effects of patients and corpses.” Fact checkers from Indian media Alt News and Newschecker checked the images and told BuzzFeed News that at least two of the four instances were real examples of misinformation.

In one example, how slim is the line between eliminating dangerous rumors and censoring political speech, and the ministry did not explain any other ordered content. BuzzFeed News’s inspection of the remaining restricted tweets showed that at least some of them appeared to have made reasonable criticisms of the Prime Minister of India. For example, one of the restricted tweets belonged to Moloy Ghatak, a minister in West Bengal. He accused Modi of poorly managing the pandemic and exporting vaccines amid a shortage of vaccines in India.

Neither Ghatak nor the IT department responded to requests for comment

One of the restricted tweets in India belonged to Pawan Kaila, the national spokesperson of the Indian National Congress Party, the main opposition party in India. This tweet was posted on April 12 and showed photos of the Hindu religious gathering Big Pot Festival held earlier this month, during which millions of people were bathing in the river despite the rapid rise in coronavirus cases . Both ordinary Indians and the global media criticized the Indian government for allowing rallies. In his tweet, Khera compared India’s lack of response to the Big Huh Festival with an incident last year, when there were fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases in the country and members of Muslim gatherings were accused of spreading the coronavirus.

“Why are my tweets hidden?” Khera told BuzzFeed News. “This is the answer I need from the Indian government.”

“What law did I break? What rumors am I spreading? Where did I cause the panic? These are the questions I need to answer,” Khera said, and he sent one Legal requirements Go to the IT department and Twitter this week.

“If I don’t receive a response from them, I will take them to court.”

“If I don’t receive a response from them, I will take them to court,” he said. “I need legal remedies to protect my freedom of speech.”

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts said that the ministry’s statement did not provide sufficient reasons to request social media platforms to review posts. “Since when did the government send out the removal notice of the wrong information?” Alt News editor Pratik Sinha asked. “Why only quote these tweets [out of 53]? “

Social media platforms are not the only place to be hit. In the past few weeks, volunteer-run WhatsApp and Telegram group networks have expanded the scope of help, giving people access to medical oxygen, life-saving drugs, and hospital beds sprung up all over the country. But in the past few days, some of them have disbanded.According to a report On the Indian news website Quint, volunteers who manage these groups received calls from people claiming to be from the Delhi police asking them to shut them down.

Delhi Police Refuse This, but by then, people are terrified. The WhatsApp group network run by more than 300 volunteers disbanded a few days ago, although they did not receive a call. “We decided not to take risks,” the founder of the organization, who wanted to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “[I felt] Frustration and anger. “

Experts say that one of the biggest problems in this situation is the lack of transparency-from the government and the platform. Last week, Twitter disclosed details of the IT department’s orders on Lumen on Lumen, a Harvard database that allows companies to disclose deletion notices from governments around the world. But Facebook, Instagram, and Google have not commented on the so-called censorship system in one of their largest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News.

“They didn’t even make a public statement about this,” said Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “The main responsibility of transparency lies with the government, but there is absolutely no transparency on the platform.”



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