Al Jazeera Journalism Review

outside image
Placards during a protest outside Twitter's office for temporarily locking party leader Rahul Gandhi's account, in New Delhi, India on Monday, August 9, 2021. In July 2022, Twitter mounted a legal challenge against Indian government over its recent orders to take down content, including that of journalists deemed to be critical of the authorities [Manish Swarup/AP]

How social media bans have crippled journalism in India’s Punjab

The Indian government has ordered social media platforms to block hundreds of accounts of journalists and activists


When Gagandeep Singh, a 32-year-old Indian journalist, checked his Twitter account on the morning of March 19, he noticed an unusual activity. A tweet he had posted the previous day had suddenly vanished from his timeline. Instead, a message showed up in place of the tweet: "This tweet from @gagan4344 has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand". 

The tweet had been gaining considerable traction. It was an update concerning the ongoing police crackdown against the young Sikh separatist leader, Amritpal Singh. 

According to Gagandeep, the tweet had a video attached that showed a group of  people running and saying "Amritpal ko police ne ghera daal diya ha”, or “Amritpal has been ‘cordoned off’ by the police". 

Minutes later, Gagandeep, who is a news reporter with a local media outlet called Pro-Punjab, realised that his entire Twitter account had been blocked in India. This action meant that users in India had no access to his tweets. 

He received an email from Twitter informing him that action had been taken on orders from the Indian government. 

Soon, Gagandeep found he was not alone. He saw several accounts he followed, including those of his journalist friends, disappear from his timeline. 

India crackdown
Amritpal Singh, a radical Sikh leader, leaves the holy Sikh shrine of the Golden Temple along with his supporters, in Amritsar, India on March 3, 2023 [Stringer/File Photo/Reuters]

The action came as the government launched a crackdown against Amritpal Singh and his supporters on March 18. The police and paramilitary fanned out across towns and villages in the state in a bid to nab Amritpal Singh. At the same time, the authorities blocked mobile internet services to prevent unrest in the state of 27 million people.

Additionally, the government ordered social media companies to block posts in support of Amritpal Singh from their platforms. According to reports at the time, Twitter took action against more than 100 accounts, withholding access to their content in India. Moreover, several Facebook pages and YouTube channels were also blocked. Of those blocked, several belonged to local journalists and media outlets reporting on the situation. 

After a manhunt lasting more than a month, Singh was taken into custody on April 23, according to police officials. The situation has largely pacified, but the accounts and pages of journalists and activists continue to be withheld.

The bans have impacted the journalists, limiting their ability to do their work. "The information is no longer easily accessible. My stories now reach a much lower number of people," says Gagandeep.

News outlet Punjabi Lok has ceased work altogether since its Facebook page and YouTube channel, with more than 3 million followers and 1.88 million subscribers each, were blocked in India on March 21. "We were publishing our stories on Facebook and YouTube. Since they are blocked we have taken a halt, '' says Jagdeep Singh, 34, the editor of the outlet.

India crackdown
The news outlet Punjabi Lok has had to cease work since its YouTube channel and other social media pages were blocked in India on March 21

Sandeep Singh, a 28-year-old independent journalist known for his live Twitter coverage of the 2020-21 India farmer protests, is also among those whose tweets have been ordered inaccessible in India since late March. With more than 30,000 followers on Twitter, Sandeep used to post breaking news and updates from Punjab.  

"Sandeep's Twitter account has been an important source of updates from Punjab," says Aditya Menon, who is political editor at Indian news website The Quint. "He is quick and reliable." 

He uses social media to counter the misinformation and what he calls "propaganda against his community and state". But the gag on his Twitter account is restricting his ability to counter the misinformation. 

"If my Twitter was not withheld, I would be tweeting accurate information and telling the truth to the world. I would be exposing the lies of the mainstream media. Sandeep says the Indian mainstream media shows Punjab in a negative light. "They peddle fake news to demonise Sikh minorities."

A reporter who covers Punjab for a prominent Indian English daily shared a similar experience of impact due to the ban on his account. "There was a lot of misinformation being spread on social media amidst the crackdown. But it was not possible for me to counter it," he says. 

The orders to ban these accounts and pages have been issued under the Indian Information Technology Act, which empowers the authorities to block access to information that they find violates India’s sovereignty, security, or has the potential to disturb public order. 

India crackdown
A protesting farmer rests on his tractor trailer blocking a highway with other farmers at the Delhi-Haryana border, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India on December 14, 2020 [Manish Swarup/AP]

Twitter, which has more than 24 million users in India, has launched a legal challenge in India in protest against the orders it has received from the Indian government to remove content.

The row came to a head in February 2021 with a tweet by the US pop star, Rihanna, which sparked widespread condemnation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of massive farmer protests near the capital, souring an already troubled relationship between the government and Twitter. 

Moving to contain the backlash, officials hit Twitter with multiple injunctions to block hundreds of tweets critical of the government. In the event, Twitter says it was forced to block 250 accounts in response to legal orders from the government. 

But journalists like Gagandeep are baffled by the bans on their own Twitter accounts, saying they did not post anything that violated the law.

"As a reporter on the ground, it was my duty to post authentic information and keep the public informed," he said, adding that he did not write anything to incite violence. "I was tweeting responsibly, following all the norms and ethics."

Similarly, Jagdeep says he does not know why the government has taken action against his channel. "I do not understand why my page and channel have been blocked when we have not committed any wrongdoing," he says. 

Commentators say the action against the social media accounts of journalists in Punjab is driven by the government's policy to forestall any attempts to challenge the government's line on the situation in Punjab. "These are mostly independent journalists who have been at the forefront of countering the official narrative of the central government. They make effective use of social media to counter the misinformation. That is why I feel that they have been penalised," says Menon. 

India crackdown
A woman looks at the Twitter page of pop star Rihanna in New Delhi, India on Thursday, July 15, 2021. A row began in February with a tweet by Rihanna that sparked widespread condemnation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of massive farmer protests near the capital [Manish Swarup/AP]

While the social media companies informed the users that their accounts had been withheld, they did not explain how their content violated the laws. In their defence, the companies say they are bound by the law to keep the takedown orders confidential. Under new rules enacted in 2021, if social media companies fail to comply with the orders, they may lose safe harbour, and their staff in India would be held liable for user content.  

But tech legal experts question the legality of the orders, pointing out that the government was going overboard in shutting down entire accounts, pages, and channels.

"While specific tweets or online content may be blocked, the law does not empower the government to block entire social media accounts since they cannot be considered "information". Blocking social media accounts in their entirety is illegal as it falls outside the scope of the rules," says Gayatri Malhotra of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-profit that champions digital rights in India.

Press bodies in India have appealed to the authorities to review their gag orders and revoke the ban on social media accounts of journalists, saying that the actions undermine press freedom in the country.

Geeta Seshu, a free speech activist in India, calls the social bans against  journalists "unfair and unjust," which, she says, rob journalists of a platform to reach out to the public and communicate their information and opinions.

The latest report by Reporters Sans Frontieres on the press freedom situation, places India at 161 on the press freedom index list, behind its neighbours Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This is an 11-point drop from last year, when India stood at 150.

Journalists said their attempts to request the government revoke the ban fell on deaf ears. Gangandeep says his request for revocation of the ban against his account has been rejected without any explanation, while the reporter with the English daily adds that he received no response to his email at all. Jagdeep says when he wrote an email to the officials, he was told they would look into his concerns and "get back to me soon".

India crackdown
A man holds a placard demanding the release of climate activist Disha Ravi, who was arrested for circulating a document on social media that allegedly incited protesting farmers to turn violent, in Bengaluru, India on February 15, 2021 [Aijaz Rahi/AP]

"We only ask them to be open and clear and point to us if we have done anything wrong," says Jagdeep. 

Malhotra, the tech legal expert, believes that the government's refusal to disclose the orders is a violation of the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling that access to online  information can only "occur after providing the blocking order, a hearing, and a reasoned order" to the user and the social media platform. 

Al-Jazeera Journalism Review approached the Ministry of Electronics and Technology, which regulates social media companies, for comment, but received no response.

In the face of such opacity in the process, the journalists say they have limited options to fight back and get the bans on their accounts revoked. They are also less hopeful of remedies from the courts. "If we go to court, there we will face hearing after hearing, and we are not sure if the courts will decide in our favour," says Gagandeep.



More Articles

The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
Monitoring of Journalistic Malpractices in Gaza Coverage

On this page, the editorial team of the Al Jazeera Journalism Review will collect news published by media institutions about the current war on Gaza that involves disinformation, bias, or professional journalistic standards and its code of ethics.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 9 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023
Reporter’s Notebook - what I learned from covering the Kalash people

As journalists, our fascination with Indigenous communities can blind us to our ethical obligations to respect privacy and dignity of those we document - we must reflect carefully

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 5 Oct, 2023
The French banlieues and their troubled relationship with the media

Discriminatory media coverage of recent unrest in the suburbs of Paris shows that little has changed since the uprisings of 2005

Ahmed Nazif Published on: 28 Sep, 2023
Why are Zimbabwe’s elections always surrounded by media controversy?

Election season in Zimbabwe has long been shrouded in controversy, with intimidation of opposition activists and journalists, combined with disorganisation at the ballots creating a perfect storm for chaos. This year was no different

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 25 Sep, 2023
Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023