Clampdown on social media is contempt of court
The Supreme Court gave a welcome direction on social media freedom
The Supreme Court gave a welcome direction on social media freedom. It ordered: "The Central Government and State Governments shall notify all Chief Secretaries/Directors General of Police/Commissioners of Police that any clampdown on information on social media or harassment caused to individuals seeking/delivering help on any platform will attract a coercive exercise of jurisdiction by this Court. The Registrar (Judicial) is also directed to place a copy of this order before all District Magistrates in the country".
Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat of SC Bench considered the continuing surge of infections in the second wave of the pandemic on its own. The SC has directed the Central and State Governments to put on the record the efforts taken to curb the spread of virus and the measures that they are planning to take in the future. The direction on assault on social media is significant as that came on World Press Freedom Day.
Mainstream media is ignoring the real suffering of people reeling under Covid virus, rising number of deaths, long queues of ambulance vehicles with bodies before crematorium, thousands waiting for vaccine dose, failed supplies of oxygen cylinders all over the country. Miserable administration and miseries of people is no subject of debate for TV channels. Except some of the print media, the administrative failure is not being questioned at all. Inevitably, patients and their relatives are resorting to Facebook and WhatsApp platforms to ventilate grievances and locate the help for Covid related issues like a bed or ICU bed or medicine or doctor. The IT teams of the rulers are working overtime to remove the photos, postings for help or disclosure of actual condition, which indirectly expose the pathetic failures of administration.
As the truthful picture of Covid sufferings is visible mainly or only in social media, netizen's media freedom is coming under threat, not only from the 'state' authorities, but also from some wings of political parties in power. Their associates are attacking critical postings, which are being heavily trolled, threatened, removed and then false cases are slapped against the persons for those posting, forwarding, commenting, or drawing a picture or making a video. Even liking them is also not tolerated.
The Supreme Court had rightly taken suo moto cognisance on 30th April of unruly attack on social media freedom from pro-ruling party forces. The SC Bench has warned State governments and police against clamping down on the spread of information or calls for help through social media from citizens affected by COVID-19. Justice Chandrachud was more vocal against such politics, saying: "We will treat it as a contempt of court if such grievances is considered for action. Let a strong message go to all the States and DGPs of States. Clampdown of information is contrary to basic precepts".
A Special Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat said any move by any State to punish citizens who take to the social media to seek help for oxygen cylinders, COVID-19 drugs, beds, hospitalisation, etc, amid a rampaging second wave would attract contempt of court action. This is the right order and suffering masses want the leaders and police officers to be jailed for contempt of court, contempt of humanity and impunity for their power drunk criminality. The stern warning that came from Court is: "We will treat it as contempt of court if such grievances are considered for action. Let a strong message go to all the states and DGP of states that clampdown of info is contrary to basic precepts." He further said, "We want to make it very clear that if citizens communicate their grievance on social media and the internet, it cannot be said it's wrong information." Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representative of Central Government said: "As an officer of the court, I fully agree with what Your Lordships have said".
Centre's censor of Twitter
If this is the response of states, the centre is also not logging behind. The Union Ministry of Law & Justice is issuing instructions to the Twitter to remove several tweet comments saying some tweets on Covid were not in compliance with India's IT law. Twitter is ready to promptly implement the orders of the Central Government. It has blocked several tweets made by some popular handles, including those of Member of Parliament Revanth Reddy, West Bengal Minister Moloy Ghatak, actor Vineet Kumar Singh, and filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.
The tweets that have been deleted were strongly questioning the scarcity of medicines that is hurting Covid patients. A few comments are about the Kumbh Mela that took place in Haridwar even as the pandemic saw a resurgence. Though banned in India, the tweets are still available if they are accessed from outside India. As per MediaNama webportal 52 tweets were blocked out, because they were critical of the Government's miserable failure. It is well known that the world media denounced the Indian management was poor and inefficient. For example: Congress MP Revanth Reddy, from Malkajgiri of Telangana, tweeted that India was having over 200,000 new cases of the virus per day, and that the healthcare system was collapsing. He also posted a picture of a mass cremation on his twitter account.
Now we cannot see it in India, while whole of the world around can see. The content of critical comment is about multi-phase elections in West Bengal, a very contentious issue, especially when rulers are irresponsibly addressing huge rallies unmindful of hazardous risk of corona spread. It is in this context West Bengal's Minister of Labour and Law Moloy Ghatak criticised 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. A tweet of ABP News editor Pankaj Jha, was calling out the difference in attitudes towards the Tablighi Jamaat event in 2020 and the Kumbh Mela.
Actor Vineet Kumar Singh's Hindi tweet was that he was in Varanasi and that it was difficult to get medication, and criticised political rallies being held amid the pandemic. 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. All of these are removed.
When contacted by MediaNama, the actor wrote: "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,"
There is an earlier history of removal of some tweets. Centre was very strongly opposing certain contentious hashtag tweets like the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag etc. All those dozens of tweets were withheld. These comments can never be termed as abuse of freedom of expression. They are common man's general questions.
The twitter's response to MediaNama's question was: "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".
Twitter said: "In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they're aware that we've received a legal order pertaining to the account".
Both the Government and Twitter should be transparent about the orders issued and tweets deleted in response. How can a 'request' from Government could be treated as a legal order? What is the legal basis? Why did it not display the legal order if it is really 'legal'? It also claimed: 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.
(The writer is Professor of Law, Bennett University and former Central Information Commissioner)