As hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers charge ahead with their monthslong protests of new agricultural laws on the outskirts of New Delhi, the movement has spilled over to the internet.
Like on the ground where police have arrested at least eight journalists and dozens of demonstrators, the Indian government is attempting to silence dissent online.
Canadian federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh described the situation to talk show host Lilly Singh on Tuesday, “farmers are just asking for their rights. By asking for their rights they’re being labelled as terrorists. They’re being considered disloyal to the country. There is a very violent and suppressive and oppressive climate created by the Indian state and by the police.”
Jagmeet and Lilly have been outspoken supporters of the Indian farmers, along with famous actors, comedians, authors, musicians, NBA and NFL players, Australian rapper L Fresh The Lion, Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, who’ve all recently tweeted about the protests.
These tweets prompted an angry response from the highest levels of the Indian government.
“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a statement. “The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
The Indian government has also repeatedly demanded Twitter suspend more than 1,000 accounts that it claims are spreading misinformation about the protests. India threatened to jail Twitter employees there for up to seven years, BuzzFeed News reported.
Twitter said it did take action on more than 500 flagged accounts that violated its rules and restricted the visibility of hashtags containing what it deemed to be harmful content. However, the social media company refused to restrict tweets from journalists, media companies, activists and politicians.
“To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” Twitter said in a statement Wednesday. “We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the tweets should flow.”
The protests began last November when predominantly Sikh farmers began a peaceful march from Punjab and Haryana states to the Indian capital to oppose the laws they say favour big farming corporations and will ruin their livelihood. The Indian government maintains the laws are necessary to modernise the country’s vast agricultural sector.
Tensions escalated on January 26 in a violent clash between farmers and police that left one protester dead and hundreds injured.
Police also laid “baseless” charges that should be withdrawn, demanded Human Rights Watch. Police have erected concrete barriers and barbed wire and planted spikes around the capital city to prevent farmers from entering.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has intermittently cut off internet and phone service to the farmers’ camps to suppress protests — a move condemned by internet rights groups.
“Internet shutdowns cannot be used to prevent people from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful protest,” Internet Freedom Foundation said in a statement.
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