A few days after India blocked a BBC documentary examining Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during 2002 anti-Muslim riots and barred people from sharing it online, authorities were scrambling to stop showings of the show in universities and restrict the dissemination of short films about him on social networks, a measure that critics have denounced as an attack on freedom of expression.
The two-part documentary “India: The Modi Question” has not been broadcast in India by the BBC, but the country’s federal government blocked its distribution over the weekend and banned people share video clips about him on social media, arguing the use of emergency powers under his information technology laws. Twitter and YouTube complied with the request and removed many links to the film.
The ban unleashed a wave of criticism from opposition parties and human rights groups, who denounced it as an attack on press freedom. It also drew more attention to the film, with a large number of social media users sharing video clips about it on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Twitter.
Press freedom in India has declined in recent years and the country dropped eight places, to 150th place out of 180 nations, in last year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. He accuses the Modi government of silencing criticism on social media, especially Twitter.
Senior ruling party leaders have rejected this, even as the Modi government has regularly pressured Twitter to restrict or ban content it views as critical of the prime minister or his party. Last year, he threatened to arrest the social network’s staff in the country for their refusal to ban accounts operated by critics, after the government implemented sweeping new regulations for technology and social media companies.
Meanwhile, following the ban, critics of Twitter accused the company of censorship.
The general director of the social network, Elon Musk, tweeted in turn before such an accusation: “The first I have heard. It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter around the world overnight, and at the same time continue to run Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”
The ban on the BBC documentary came after the government unveiled a proposal to give its Press Information Office and other “fact-checking” agencies powers to remove news deemed “fake or untrue” from digital platforms. . The Publishers Guild of India urged the government to scrap the proposal, saying such a change would amount to censorship.
On Wednesday, tensions over the issue escalated in the capital New Delhi, where a group of students from Jamia Millia University said they planned to screen the banned film. In light of this, dozens of riot police took up positions in front of the campus gates.
Police officers, some in civilian clothes, struggled with protesting students and detained at least half a dozen, who were taken away in a van.
“This is the time for the Indian youth to put in plain sight the truth that the whole world knows. We know what the prime minister is doing to society,” said Liya Sharif, 20, a geography student and member of the student group Fraternity Movement.
Jawaharlal Nehru University cut off power and internet on its campus Tuesday before a student group was scheduled to screen the documentary. The authorities said that it would have disturbed the tranquility in the facilities, but in any case the students saw it on their laptops and cell phones after sharing it on messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
The film has also caused a storm in other Indian universities.
Authorities at the University of Hyderabad in southern India have launched an investigation after a student group screened the banned documentary this week. In the southern state of Kerala, workers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party staged demonstrations on Tuesday after student groups affiliated with rival political parties defied the ban and screened the film.
The first part of the documentary, released last week by the BBC for its audiences in Britain, recounts the most controversial episode of Modi’s political career when he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives in anti-Muslim riots.
Modi has rejected accusations that authorities under his supervision allowed and even encouraged bloodshed, and the Supreme Court said it found no evidence to bring charges against him. Last year, he rejected a petition filed by a Muslim victim challenging Modi’s exoneration.
The first part of the BBC film relies on interviews with riot victims, journalists and human rights activists, who say Modi turned a blind eye during the unrest. He cites, for the first time, a secret British diplomatic inquiry that found Modi was “directly responsible” for the “environment of impunity.”
The film includes testimony from then-British Chancellor Jack Straw that the British inquiry found that the violence carried out by Hindu nationalists was aimed at “purging Muslims from Hindu areas” and had all the “hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” ”.
Suspicions that Modi quietly backed the riots led the United States, Britain and the European Union to deny him a visa, a move that has since been reversed.
India’s Foreign Ministry said last week that the documentary is a “propaganda piece designed to give impetus to a particularly discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity, criticizing it for being “one-sided” and having “a persistent colonial mindset.” Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in the government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, declared this to be “anti-Indian crap”.
The BBC said in a statement that “rigorous research” was carried out for the making of the film and a wide range of voices and opinions were included.
“We offered the Indian government the right to respond to the issues raised in the series, and it declined to respond,” the statement said.
The second part of the documentary, released in Britain on Tuesday, “examines the trajectory of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019,” according to the film’s description on the BBC website.
In recent years, India’s Muslim minority has been the target of violence by Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has said little about such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.
Human Rights Watch says the ban on the documentary reflects broader crackdowns on minorities under Modi’s rule, which the rights group says has often involved draconian measures to silence criticism.
“You can prohibit, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions… but the truth is the truth. He has a nasty habit of coming out in the open,” Rahul Gandhi, one of the leaders of the opposition Congress Party, told reporters on Tuesday.
Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker from Trinamool’s Congress party, tweeted a new link to the documentary on Tuesday after a previous one was removed. “Good, bad or ugly, we decide. The government does not tell us what we should see, ”Moitra declared in her tweet.
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