By Aroon Deep and Aditya Chunduru
You’re reading it here first: Twitter has complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. These tweets, which are now inaccessible to Indian users of the social media website, include posts by Revanth Reddy, a sitting Member of Parliament; Moloy Ghatak, a West Bengal state minister; actor Vineet Kumar Singh; and two filmmakers, Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.
MediaNama has seen public disclosures of the orders made available by Twitter to the Lumen Database. Lumen Database receives and publishes disclosures from private entities, including social media companies, of legal takedown notices they get from governments and private entities all over the world. MediaNama has previously reported the withholding of Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Sukhram Singh Yadav’s Twitter account based on a Lumen Database disclosure. Such orders are typically sent by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY).
Filmmaker and former journalist Vinod Kapri confirmed to MediaNama that he had received a notice from Twitter that his post was restricted in India. Three other users confirmed receipt of such emails too. Another user publicly acknowledged a similar notice in a separate tweet.
We have reached out to MEITY for comment. We are also awaiting responses from Moloy Ghatak, a minister in the West Bengal government whom we have called several times and messaged; Revanth Reddy, a Member of Parliament from the Indian National Congress, whose office we have reached out to multiple times; we have also reached out to other Twitter users mentioned in the disclosures. We will update this post as soon as we hear from them.
Twitter sent across this statement in response to a query by MediaNama:
When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they’re aware that we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account. We notify the user(s) by sending a message to the email address associated with the account(s), if available. Read more about our Legal request FAQs. The legal requests that we receive are detailed in the biannual Twitter Transparency Report, and requests to withhold content are published on Lumen. — Twitter Spokesperson
The company added that it had notified users about their tweets’ censorship, and that they only remove COVID-19 misinformation if it advances a harmful narrative, and is demonstrably false.
While MEITY has not responded to our emailed query, an anonymous official from the ministry has reportedly told ANI that these posts constituted “social media misuse” and these posts were removed to “prevent obstructions in fight against the pandemic and escalation of public order”. Based on a reading of the tweets in question, this characterisation appears to be false. Additionally, the low volume of posts taken down (around 100 including other sites according to ANI) seem to have had minimal impact, as many of the tweets had relatively little engagement.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in response to this development on Monday that the takedown of these tweets “certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.”
What was removed
West Bengal’s minister of Labour and Law Moloy Ghatak tweeted that India would “never forgive” the Prime Minister for what he described as underplaying the seriousness of the pandemic, and for exporting doses to other countries. This tweet by Ghatak was removed for Indian users. MediaNama is not reproducing or quoting directly from these tweets.
Revanth Reddy, Member of Parliament for Malkajgiri, Telangana, tweeted that India was having over 200,000 new cases of the virus per day, and that the healthcare system was collapsing, along with a picture of a mass cremation. This tweet, too, was removed. A tweet by ABP News editor Pankaj Jha, calling out the difference in attitudes towards the Tablighi Jamaat event in 2020 and the Kumbh Mela, was also removed.
Actor Vineet Kumar Singh tweeted in Hindi that he was in Varanasi and that it was difficult to get medication, and criticised political rallies being held amid the pandemic. The government ordered Twitter to remove this tweet for Indian users. We have reached out to Singh’s publicist for comment.
Filmmaker and former journalist Vinod Kapri made a tweet about the mass cremations with a video of one such cremation ground. In that tweet, Kapri made a sarcastic remark about how a promise to make more shmashānas (Hindu cremation grounds) had been fulfilled. Twitter withheld this tweet in India. “India is facing biggest crisis of all times, thousands are dying EVERYDAY just because of lack of oxygen and medicines and it is my moral duty as a filmmaker and Journalist to tell the truth, to expose this inhuman and immoral Government who instead of supplying oxygen to dying patients, is writing to Twitter to take action against free and independent voices,” Kapri wrote in a response to Twitter’s email that he shared with MediaNama.
There is no contentious hashtag these tweets have in common, like the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag that the government strongly objected to the last time it had a few dozen tweets withheld in the country.
Update (8:36pm): Added details of a user confirming receipt of a withholding notification from Twitter.
Update 2 (April 26): An alleged statement by an anonymous MEITY official provided to ANI has been added. Confirmations from more users were also added.
Update 3 (April 27): Added statement by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
Correction (9:09pm): An earlier version of this article misidentified the profession of Vinod Kapri in one instance. We regret the error.
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