Al Jazeera Journalism Review

 Indian farmers march towards New Delhi to press for better crop prices. (Reuters, Shamhu Border -
Farmers gesture towards police officers at the site of a protest as they march towards New Delhi to press for better crop prices, at Shambhu barrier, a border crossing between Punjab and Haryana states, India, February 21, 2024. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

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.


Digital Journalism on the Frontline

As India anticipates another march on its capital, there are pointed efforts to suppress dissenting voices across the subcontinent. The Indian press, already under intense scrutiny, finds precarious support in digital journalism, which now bears the weight of the nation's vibrant democracy. During the ongoing farmers' strike, independent media reporters and unionists have committed themselves to thorough coverage of the events. Such grassroots journalism, often spearheaded by smaller media outlets, is crucial in keeping the populace informed and fostering global unity behind these causes.

Yet, in a concerning turn of events on February 22, numerous esteemed journalists and unions discovered their social media accounts were abruptly suspended or restricted, without any warning.

The Indian government issued directives commanding the suspension of multiple X (formerly Twitter) accounts, citing the violation of India's Information Technology Act, 2000 as the sole justification. Though the platform underlined its grave disagreement, it had to succumb to the executive orders.


Legal Battles and Censorship

X, through its Global Government Affairs account, said, "In compliance with the orders we will withhold these accounts and posts in India alone. However, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts.”

"Consistent with our position, a writ appeal challenging the Indian government's blocking orders remains pending. We have also provided the impacted users with notice of these actions by our policies."


Accounts_Suspended: depicts the accounts of various independent journalists/unions, withheld recently by X under govt. orders. (Source: by Mohd. Zubair, an independent fact checker from India)
Accounts_Suspended: depicts the accounts of various independent journalists/unions, withheld recently by X under govt. orders. (Source: by Mohd. Zubair, an independent fact checker from India)

Under the guise of confidentiality, concealment has been maintained over reasons surrounding the decision to block these accounts — legal restrictions bar X from disclosing the orders publicly — further aggravating the opacity. However, regional reports suggest that many of these suspended or withheld accounts were 'critical' of India's ruling party. The blocked accounts include journalists Sandeep Singh and Mandeep Punia, news portal Gaon Savera, Tribal Army, its founder Hansraj Meena, and other independent media personnel reporting heavily on the farmers' protest.

Anant Nath, the President of Editor's Guild of India and Editor at The Caravan, said, "What we are seeing in the case of the X (Twitter) accounts being censored is a small anecdote of a much larger narrative. The last three years in India have witnessed a rise in the fabrication of laws that hinder journalistic freedom. The government has vested itself with the discretionary power to remove any content online through a certain mechanism, and that is the genesis of the problem."

Wiping these accounts off the internet has blazed a paramount moral debate over the foundational democratic principles of free speech and expression. The government's actions to influence and curtail online material infringe on X's proclaimed commitment to free speech, on which the platform takes great pride, and abrades the friction between India and X. The move is broadly seen as an endeavour to muffle the voices of dissent, limit the access of the general public to a diversity of thought and extinguish a narrative inconvenient to the central government on an issue of national interest.

Inforgraphic_PressFreedom.jpeg - is a graph depicting the decline in Freedom of Press in India based on Reporters without Borders reports (Source:
Inforgraphic_PressFreedom.jpeg - is a graph depicting the decline in Freedom of Press in India based on Reporters without Borders reports (Source:

Santa Clara University's Director for Journalism and Media Ethics, Subramaniam Vincent, expresses concerns about these anti-democratic practices, saying, "The current Government of India has made it clear that it is the arbiter of truth on matters it deems as the government's domain. What is most worrisome is the total lack of transparency on both sides. Why is the government not listing all the X accounts and speech cases that they claim violate the rules? Why is X not listing the accounts and the specific posts other than mouthing some mild protests?

"Without the specifics of the takedown orders in one place (like a website), the extent, scale, and justifications are simply not open to public discourse and scrutiny. That itself is an anti-democratic use of power by a legitimately elected dispensation."

India's ranking of 161st out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index is no surprise, given how the government has created a fertile ground for legally quelling voices that do not flatter its interests.

He further explains that it is difficult for independent media to flourish if the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is used as a weapon to raid organizations, threaten jail time, etc., to squelch them.

"This is outrageous and an attack on the freedom of expression. What have we done? It means the government is above criticism and cannot be pointed out for their wrongdoing." Hansraj Meena, one of the activists whose account fell prey to the censorship, spoke to a regional media organization. He further remarked that none of his posts employed abrupt language or promoted any violence and fell within the boundaries of social media norms and guidelines. The centre’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the reasons for withholding these accounts indicates the lack of any justifiable reason in the first place.

Censoring media in India has become a tendency of the state. In another news, India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) directed The Caravan magazine, one of India's oldest journals of politics and culture, to take down a story titled 'Screams from the Army Post' it published in its February issue alleging torture and murder of civilians by the army in Jammu. The order was under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. It reportedly threatened The Caravan magazine with a complete website shutdown if it refused to remove the contested article within 24 hours.

TheCaravanCensored - is a snapshot of the notification put up on The Caravan Magazine's censored report.
TheCaravanCensored - is a snapshot of the notification put up on The Caravan Magazine's censored report. (Source:

The Press Club of India detested the act, saying, "(it) gravely infringes Freedom of Press, which has seen a serious slide in the past few years". The executive editor of the journal called it a fundamental challenge to their right to report the truth and the citizen's right to know the truth.

Further, Human Rights Organization Amnesty India argued that instead of carrying out an independent investigation into the allegations of human rights violations reported by The Caravan, the Indian government censored the magazine. The magazine editor, Anant Nath, said, "These government actions establish an atmosphere of fear, leading to self-censorship among media houses. The high economic stakes, plausible criminal charges, and actions fuel the media's hesitancy in reporting." He additionally commented that The Caravan was not even allowed to read a copy of the complaint that was arguably filed against their reported piece.

The story of media censorship in India is not new and has rather always been in place. The current government is building upon the legacy of the previous governments and perhaps using it more harshly.

India's ranking of 161st out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index is no surprise, given how the government has created a fertile ground for legally quelling voices that do not flatter its interests. The Editors Guild of India (EGI) worries about the lack of exemptions for journalistic activities from the Digital Personal Data Protection Act (2023), potentially requiring reporters to obtain consent before using any personal data during newsgathering. This could significantly hinder investigative journalism and limit access to crucial information. Another cause for concern is the Broadcasting Services Bill of November 2023. This bill seeks to expand government control over digital media platforms and online content providers. Legal experts fear it could become a tool for censorship, eroding media independence.

The conjecture is that this recurring slaughter of dissent has increased lately in the interest of image safeguarding for the coming central elections. However, Anant from the EGI suggests otherwise: "The story of media censorship in India is not new and has rather always been in place. The current government is building upon the legacy of the previous governments and perhaps using it more harshly. Thus, the censorship narrative cannot be attributed to any particular government; it is something that has existed throughout the history of the nation."

The farmer's protest is a complex issue demanding open discourse, not a monologue controlled by the government. In India, a country where even minimal actions trigger a storm of opinions, the scrutiny and gatekeeping of ideas can be overwhelming.

The recent events have revived the perennial debate on the limits of free expression: Under what circumstances must words be banned? Should words ever be banned, and if so, under what conditions? Critics argue never; the state, on the other hand, suggests otherwise. As the adjudication of what information reaches the public domain becomes subject to personal interpretation, India, the world's largest democracy, finds itself navigating a complex labyrinth of freedom and restraint — all under the international gaze.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance.

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