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: https://www.statista.com/chart/27698/press-freedom-india/)
Inforgraphic_PressFreedom.jpeg - is a graph depicting the decline in Freedom of Press in India based on Reporters without Borders reports (Source: https://www.statista.com/chart/27698/press-freedom-india/)

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: https://caravanmagazine.in/crime/indian-army-torture-jammu-and-kashmir-poonch-bjp-gujjar-bakkerwal)

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.

More Articles

Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
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
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
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
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
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