Indian ban on BBC Modi film puts Musk’s Twitter ‘free speech’ to the test

<span>Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

The response by the Indian government was quick and draconian. Days after a BBC documentary examining the role that Narendra Modi, now prime minister, had played in 2002 communal riots in Gujarat was released, the information ministry announced that all links to the footage were to be banned on social media.

Emergency laws brought in by the Modi government just two years ago were used to enforce the ban.

Both Twitter and YouTube quickly complied with the government’s censorship requests. Posts on about 50 Twitter accounts were removed, with activists, politicians and even Hollywood actors among those affected, as well as an unspecified number of YouTube channels. Widely shared clips of the documentary, which alleged that Modi, in his role as chief minister of Gujarat at the time, had enabled and then did nothing to stop the violence in which almost 1,000 Muslims were killed, quickly disappeared from Indian social media.

Related: ‘Wolf in watchdog’s clothing’: India’s new digital media laws spark fears for freedoms

It is not the first time the Modi government has used the 2021 information technology rules to censor online content critical of the administration. However, the action taken over the BBC documentary is among the most high-profile use of the legislation and sheds light on the fragile and fractious place that social media such as Twitter now occupy in India and directly pits the vow of the platform’s new billionaire owner, Elon Musk, to be a “free speech absolutist” against increasingly authoritarian laws governing the country’s online sphere.

Widely criticised by human rights groups and digital activists, the 2021 IT rules give the government power to remove any content it deems to threaten “the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India”.

Even before the passing of the legislation, legal demands made by the Modi government to remove content from Twitter increased by 48,000% between 2014 and 2020, according to analysis of the company’s transparency reports.

The two-part BBC series documenting the rise of Modi has proved highly controversial in India, despite it only being released in the UK, prompting allegations from the Indian foreign ministry that it was “biased propaganda” that showed a “blatant colonial mindset”.

Related: India invokes emergency laws to ban BBC Modi documentary

Kanchan Gupta, a spokesperson for the information ministry, called the documentary “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage” and students who arranged a screening at a university in Kerala this week were accused of being “treasonous”. At Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, students who tried the same were hit with an electricity and internet blackout, and had stones thrown at them by others from rightwing groups.

The BBC has said its documentary was “rigorously researched according to highest editorial standards”.

Many have cited their compliance with the online censorship of the documentary as an example of how Twitter and YouTube are helping to further erode freedom of speech in India, in order to appease the Modi government and not compromise access to the vast and increasingly online Indian population. There are over 40 million Twitter users in India, making it their third largest market after Japan and the US.

“This use of an emergency law as a censorship mechanism is a very worrying development but it’s far from the first time this has happened,” said Prateek Waghre, the policy director at the advocacy group the Internet Freedom Foundation in India. According to a statement to parliament in July, action was taken against 94 YouTube channels, 19 social media accounts and 747 URLs on the government’s request since the IT rules were passed.

Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter had pushed back – though somewhat inconsistently – against the Modi government’s increasingly heavy-handed approach towards social media. Twitter had restored some of the accounts the administration had demanded the removal of and in July last year filed a lawsuit in Indian courts alleging New Delhi had abused its power by ordering the company to arbitrarily and disproportionately take down accounts belonging to government critics.

Twitter still reports all the posts and accounts it removes at the request of the Indian government to the online database Lumen. YouTube, however, does not.

Yet for all his protestations to be a crusader for free speech, there are indicators that Musk’s Twitter might be far less bullish in standing up to the Modi government. When Musk was trying to back out of the deal to buy the platform, he made it clear in the court filings that he was unhappy with the lawsuit against the Indian government, saying he believed moderation should “hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates”.

Among the Indian accounts that have been reinstated since Musk took over is that of Kangana Ranaut, a fiercely pro-Modi actor who has espoused anti-Muslim sentiments and was suspended in 2021 for posts that were seen as a call to violence against minorities.

On taking over, he has not mentioned the lawsuit once but did fire almost all 200 of Twitter’s employees in India. Separately, Musk’s car company, Tesla, is lobbying India’s government to reduce import taxes on electric vehicles so it can have access to the lucrative Indian market.

Waghre said Musk’s position on championing free speech on Twitter, already wildly inconsistent, was likely to be “severely tested in India”, as the furore around the BBC documentary had proven.

“We’re talking about pressures on freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy,” Waghre said. “Musk’s pledge has rung hollow everywhere, but in India the impact will certainly be larger.”