Twitter and YouTube have reportedly taken down posts and clips relating to the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question following requests made by the Indian government to remove content related to the film, which analyzes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during the Gujarat riots in 2002. Kanchan Gupta, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting advisor, took to Twitter on Saturday, January 21, calling the film “propaganda” and citing emergency powers under India’s information technology rules to block it.
According to Lumen, an independent research project out of Harvard University, Twitter has taken down posts in India by politicians, journalists, and news media in response to the request. Derek O’Brien, a member of parliament in India’s upper house, noted on Saturday that his tweet about the documentary, in which he called out the prime minister for his alleged “hate for minorities,” had been taken down. A post by actor and activist John Cusack, who co-wrote Things that Can and Cannot Be Said with Arundhati Roy (a critic of the Modi government), was also among the tweets reportedly removed in India. It included a link to the documentary on YouTube that was later removed after being blocked by the video-sharing platform. (A YouTube spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the documentary was blocked by the BBC due to a copyright claim.)
Another member of parliament, Mahua Moitra, tweeted, “Sorry, haven’t been elected to represent world’s largest democracy to accept censorship” with an Internet Archive link to the documentary online, which was also taken down.
A BBC spokesperson told Hyperallergic, “The BBC has not asked Twitter to remove any content relating to the documentary. As is our standard practice, we issue Takedown Notices to websites and other file sharing platforms where the content infringes the BBC’s copyright.”
“A wide range of voices, witnesses and experts were approached, and we have featured a range of opinions — this includes responses from people in the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party],” the spokesperson continued. “We offered the Indian Government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series — it declined to respond.” It is unclear if and when the documentary will be released to viewers outside of the UK.
The BBC aired the first segment of the two-part series in the United Kingdom on Tuesday, January 17 and the second a week later. The documentary brings to light a previously unpublished report that the BBC acquired from the British Foreign Office that questions whether Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat at the time, was “directly responsible” for the ”climate of impunity” that enabled violence in the region.
The riots coming under new scrutiny took place on February 27, 2002, when a train transporting Hindu pilgrims caught fire and killed 59 people. Hindu mobs retaliated to the fire, which was linked to an altercation between Hindu activists and Muslim residents in Godhra and sparked riots for more than two months. About 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and about 150,000 were displaced. Modi was criticized for not doing enough to stop the violence that erupted against Gujarat’s Muslim minority. In a 2012 victory speech celebrating the Bharatiya Janata Party’s state election win, Modi apologized for mistakes he may have made, alluding to the 2002 riots. In 2012, the Supreme court appointed a special investigation team that concluded it could not find evidence with which to prosecute Modi, who was first elected prime minister in 2014.
Data shared by Twitter shows a compliance rate with legal requests to remove posts by India’s government at under 20% in the year before Elon Musk took over. Musk has attempted to position himself as a “free speech absolutist” since he acquired the company in October 2022. However, he has been criticized for reversing account suspensions imposed on far-right politicians such as former President Donald Trump after the January 6 insurrection and Representative Marjorie Taylor Green who spread COVID-19 misinformation. Musk has also come under scrutiny for failing to reverse the suspension of Distributed Denial of Secrets, a watchdog group known for leaking documents in the public’s interest. In December 2022, journalists who covered the platform critically, including reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN, among others, had their accounts suspended.
Since Indian authorities’ attempts over the weekend to block posts about the documentary, students have been detained for going forward with screenings of The Modi Question at universities. BBC reports that police dressed in riot gear detained a dozen students at Jamia Millia Islamia university on Wednesday night, calling the screening an “unauthorised gathering.” The previous night, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi accused officials of shutting down electricity and Internet access to stop a planned screening.
Human rights and free speech organizations such as Human Rights Watch, International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and PEN America have condemned what they see as a decline in freedom of expression and space to openly criticize governments.
“While you can argue that yes there needs to be some element of control, what’s been happening in India has largely been executive,” Prateek Waghre, Internet Freedom Foundation policy director, told Al Jazeera. “There is a lot of discretionary control at the executive level with minimal oversight. And that’s where the concern is.”