India’s hate speech trackers are being blocked

In January this year, when Raqib Hameed Naik received a notice from X (formerly Twitter) that Hindutva Watch was blocked on the platform by order of the country’s ruling Hindu–nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he was not surprised. The government had submitted more than 28 legal requests to X in the past two years, seeking removal of Watch’s posts. As well as the X account being blocked in India, the Hindutva Watch website was, and is, also inaccessible in the country.

“While shocking, it’s not surprising, considering Prime Minister Modi regime’s history of suppressing free press & critical voices,” Naik wrote on X on 16 January in reaction to the ban.

Naik, a journalist reporting on conflict and marginalisation of minorities, founded and runs US-based independent research project Hindutva Watch, which tracks hate crimes by right–wing Hindus against Muslims, Christians and members of the historically oppressed castes in India. The website of India Hate Lab, another initiative by Naik that is exclusively dedicated to tracking hate speech in India, has also been rendered inaccessible in the country.

Various law enforcement agencies have frequently attempted to erase Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab’s documentation of hate crime and speech towards minorities, primarily on the pretext of violating India’s controversial Information Technology (IT) Act 2000, though the government never clarified which specific laws were violated by the two websites. 

The IT Act grants authorities the power to block access to information under the guise of safeguarding India’s “sovereignty, integrity, and security”. In 2022, the country’s Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Act which empowered the government to prosecute individuals for sharing “offensive” messages online. Various governments, irrespective of political affiliations, had misused the provision to detain ordinary civilians critical of the government.

Hailing from the conflict-ridden India-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Naik started working as a journalist in 2014. He said it was evident for him from the beginning of his career that the government was vindictive against journalists and media outlets who reported critically on them, especially from sensitive areas like Kashmir. The situation, he believes, is worse for journalists from minority communities.

“The assault on the pillars of free press, coupled with the anti–minority policies and generation of an atmosphere grounded in hate and violence towards minority communities, profoundly affected me, as a Kashmiri Muslim journalist,” he told Index.

Naik’s fears were not unfounded. Initially covering political conflict and human rights in Kashmir and later on religious minorities and Hindu nationalism in India, he was among the handful of journalists who was able to report on the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy by the BJP in 2019 amidst a tight curfew and communication blockade, including internet shutdowns for several months in the Himalayan valley.

As Naik’s reporting on Kashmir’s unrest gained international recognition, it also landed him in trouble. He faced questioning from the country’s intelligence officers and frequent inquiries from the police about his whereabouts and work, putting pressure on his family.

“It’s pure harassment but also a debilitating feeling,” said Naik, who is currently in the USA, since fleeing India in 2020 as the death threats and harassment for his reporting ramped up.

“Four years have passed, and I haven’t been home since. The thought of being unable to go home indefinitely just breaks my heart,” he said. “But then, I have to gather strength because there are very few journalists left in the country to tell and humanise stories of the minorities.”

Initially running the two websites and their X accounts anonymously from Massachusetts in the USA, Naik created a unique and robust digital database of human rights abuses, which routinely occur from big cities to remote villages in what is considered the world’s largest democracy. Yet, such cases do not receive adequate mainstream press coverage in India. Interestingly, two news outlets from the country, Hindustan Times and IndiaSpend, made attempts to monitor hate crimes only to stop their operations in 2017 and 2019 respectively. 

Modi’s tenure so far has been marred with an increased suppression of dissent, targeting critics such as journalists, activists, academics, lawmakers and minority communities in India. Shortly before Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab were blocked, Modi presided over the consecration of the new Ram temple, constructed on the ruins of a historic Mughal–era mosque which was demolished by a mob in 1992. The ensuing riots took over 2,000 lives while the site remained a point of contention for over three decades.

According to IndiaSpend’s Citizen’s Religious Hate Crime Watch, a data–driven news platform, around 90% of religiously-motivated hate crimes that have occurred since 2009 did so after the BJP took power on a national level in 2014.

The scale of these hate crimes remains obscured. After 2017, the country’s national crime bureau stopped keeping a separate record on hate crimes or lynching. Naik’s project keeps track of such incidents in absence of any documentation by authorities or media in the country. Run by a small group of 12 volunteers spread across five countries, Naik’s project documents two to four hate events daily using video and picture evidence submitted by a network of Indian activists and citizens.

“Since 2021, we have documented and archived thousands of videos and stories on hate crimes and hate speeches,” Naik said. “Our efforts have led to actionable outcomes in states where law agencies were willing to take a stand against right–wing members involved in such activities.”

“What we have collected serves as the evidence for facilitating judicial intervention, particularly in cases related to hate speech,” he added.

According to the latest report released by India Hate Lab before it was blocked in India, nearly two anti–Muslim hate speech events took place every day in 2023 and around 75% of those occurred in states ruled by the BJP. Collating a total of 668 hate speech events, the report observed that the cases peaked between August and November in 2023 – the period of political campaigning and polling in four major states in the country.

In India, press freedom also took a severe plunge under Modi’s leadership and with people now heading to the polls, Naik worries that blocking of his websites could tighten the government’s grip on the information ecosystem in the country.

Despite the suspension, he remains undeterred in continuing his work. He says: “There is extreme fear. And the climate of fear may continue to stifle reporting. But I know there are journalists who won’t succumb or surrender. I see hope in them.”

Read more about how authorities are silencing their critics across borders in the upcoming issue of Index. For a 50% discounted subscription to our digital edition, visit our page on Exact Editions and use the code Spring24 here

If X is so hateful, why are we still on it?

Should I stay or should I go…

If I go there will be trouble – but if I stay it will be double.

I never thought I’d start a blog by using the lyrics of a Clash song, but occasionally needs must or rather Musk…

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter (now X) in October 2022 I think many of us have been holding our breath, waiting to see what the impact on the platform was going to be. And most importantly where his lines were going to fall on free speech versus hate speech and misinformation versus propaganda.

Most of us who care about free speech had hoped that Musk’s rhetoric would prove to be just that and that Twitter/X would not descend into a hate-filled word swamp. That his commitment to free speech would lead to enlightened debate rather than a forum seemingly designed to encourage the worst elements of human interactions.

I think it’s fair to say that Twitter was never a particularly pleasant platform to engage on. When I was a British Member of Parliament I received so many pieces of abuse in one day that I stopped using the platform – my staff took over my handle and used it solely for broadcast messages rather than engagement. It was only in 2020 that I reengaged and within a matter of weeks I had exposed myself to a wave of antisemitism because I had failed to update the security settings.

Which brings me to the line between debate, challenge and hate speech. Freedom to speak does not mean you have the right to be heard. No one has the right to make people listen to them. And equally no one has to listen or engage with hate-filled political rhetoric and propaganda. Unless they want to. In a civilised society there have to be lines that people shouldn’t want to cross. At least they shouldn’t expect to be able to without consequence.

Which brings me back to X/Twitter. The right of freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. It is to be cherished and celebrated. And must be balanced with the other rights outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must use it wisely and to do so in a way that complies with the law. Hate speech and incitement to violence are the line. They are illegal and should not be considered protected speech on any platform.

This does of course put huge pressures on our media platforms. Including social media. An even hand is required. And a fair and balanced approach to freedom of speech needs to apply. This doesn’t really seem to be the case on X/Twitter. In recent months we’ve seen the reinstatement of a range of accounts (previously banned because of their appalling use of the platform) from Stephen Yaxley Lennon, Katie Hopkins to President Trump and Ye… the list continues.

At the same time as these controversial accounts were being reinstated Article 19’s Europe & Central Asia’s account on X was suspended. Article 19 is a global organisation which seeks to defend and promote freedom of expression. They received no explanation. Therefore we rightly ask, does Musk’s view of freedom of speech only apply if he agrees with you?

Given his own use of vile and racist slurs on X/Twitter in recent days I think it’s a fair assumption.

Which brings me to our own use of the platform. Should we stay or should we go?  Aren’t we hypocrites for staying on the platform?

This is something the professional staff at Index are struggling with. We have repeatedly discussed the implications of our use of X in our campaign to extol freedom of expression around the globe. Herein lies the paradox. We could leave X tomorrow. Wash our hands of the worst aspects of human nature on the site and feel very proud of ourselves. However, we know that this platform enables us to reach people who can’t access news freely. It allows us to connect with campaigners and learn more about the reality faced by many in countries. In short: X allows us to campaign and share the voices of those who are voiceless.

Index has just shy of 80,000 followers. During our recent Freedom of Expression Awards we reached over 3 million accounts. These were mainly located in India because we awarded Mohammad Zubair our Journalism Award. This is an important example because the work of Mohammad at AltNews was spread far and wide through our use of X. These moments of light on the otherwise dark space of X are worth remembering.

And let’s be honest, one of the main uses of X in the Western world is to connect with journalists and decision-makers. In the UK and USA journalists are lovers of the platform and as night follows day so are the politicians. Should Index give up on trying to communicate with journalists on this platform? Should we turn our backs on this window into legislators’ days? Should we stay or should we go?

Index constantly asks ourselves, how can we be a voice for the persecuted if we remove ourselves from the public sphere?

In the last year we have sought to build our reach on other social media platforms but it’s a slow burn. And it’s a learning process as well which is helping us do our job better. We are discovering that content about some nations can reach more people on one social media channel over another. This has really helped us get more stories to more people.

So for now we have taken the decision to stay on X/Twitter as we build our reach on other platforms so that we can keep doing our job – providing a platform for the persecuted. But this remains a constant source of debate within Index.


There is no right to be heard

I am often asked to explain what freedom of expression means by the people I meet. After all, my role at Index is to protect and promote the fundamental human right of freedom of expression, especially with regards to writers, artists and scholars. In order to protect their rights, every day we defend the right of everyone to speak freely, to write, to create.

Last week, someone asked for my opinion on whether the right to freedom of expression implies the freedom to be heard. But one doesn’t necessarily follow on from the other.

Index exists to not just protect and promote the right of freedom of expression but also to provide a platform for political dissidents wherever they are. Our work should always be viewed through that prism as it’s our raison d’etre. The rest of our work to support and protect the voices of others is complementary to our work on dissidents, but no one should doubt that at our core it’s dissidents that we seek to promote.

Index seeks not only to ensure that dissidents have the ability to speak out, we do everything we can to make sure that they are heard. That their fear and hopes are known, that their works and art can be used to inform and educate both at home and abroad. And most importantly we seek to ensure that their experiences and views are told in their own words and in their own way. Our job is then to make sure that people notice. That people can be heard. And we do that across every one of our platforms. And by using our freedoms to amplify their stories. It’s a privilege and a joy to get to work with people throughout the world who are bravely challenging the status quo and demanding better from their governments.

But while I am proud to amplify the words and experiences of dissidents, there are others who we may not want to hear.

Every day I defend the right of people, with views and values different to my own, to have the right to express themselves. To have the right to freedom of speech and expression. But no one has the right to be heard. You have to earn that right. And hate speech, extremist speech, propaganda and misinformation, they don’t have to be heard. But people have the right to hold the views. It’s a nuanced position and can be difficult to apply in a world of the internet, social media platforms, algorithms and bots. But we must always remember that freedom of speech does not equate to a right to be heard.


Trying to sanitise our online lives through regulation will just mask tensions

Last weekend I made an error. I posted a photo on my personal social media account of some political campaigning I’d done. As a former MP, it would have surprised no one. It was the very essence of unremarkable. Yet the response this picture of six smiling friends generated was extraordinary, both in its ferocity and deeply hateful nature.

I’m not going to use the privilege that my role gives me to list the attacks in any detail.  Index is not my personal hobby horse; we aren’t party political, and work with stakeholders across the world who share our commitment to the liberal value of free expression, regardless of their personal politics. This of course means that people have the absolute right to express themselves as they see fit – including their views about me.

But here’s the rub. Because just as someone has the right to say something, or more often than not type something, doesn’t mean that the target of their comments is obliged to hear it – or read it. People have the right to speak; what they do not have is the right to be heard by the target of their ire.So when people exercise their right to criticise those in the public eye, it’s important for all those involved in the conversation to understand that when a line is crossed and abuse becomes threats, laws are being broken. And this has consequences.

The furore my innocuous tweet generated was a timely reminder of quite how horrible online discourse can become, and quite how quickly. A pile-on sees “banter” morph seamlessly into abuse, from which seep the inevitable threats. It is a pattern as old as social media itself, and is all the more common for women in the public eye, especially those who come from a minority community.

Rarely a week goes by when I am not tempted to shut all my accounts down, turn off my access and with it, mute the hate. But I am then reminded of the good that can come from social media – knowing that your friends and family are safe in the midst of a crisis, being able to reach out to former friends and colleagues, and of course being able to seek help when you need it. For Index, it is also an invaluable tool in not only shining a light on the actions of repressive regimes, but of amplifying the stories of dissidents with stories that demand to be heard. it is also a literal lifeline when communicating with correspondents and sources when no other platform is available.

All of which makes moves by governments in the UK and further afield to regulate our online space a minefield unlike any other. The British government is currently legislating to make our online world “safer”. The Canadians and Australians are doing the same, as is the European Union.

My overriding concern is that we are witnessing governments trying to legislate for cultural change. And this is a recipe for failure before any law makes it onto the statute books.

Trying to limit debate and sanitise our online lives through regulation simply masks the tensions, divisions and prejudices that exist in our societies rather than tackling the underlying causes. This is not a counsel of despair, nor a position that says regulation shouldn’t exist. Of course more can be done to make us all safer online, but we need to find the right balance in order to protect ourselves and those that we care about. We need to learn how to use the platforms properly, harnessing the indisputable good of social media while limiting our exposure to the bad. We also need to decide as citizens how we want to manage this space and – perhaps most crucially of all – who should do it. If we decide collectively that our online conversation needs more regulation than a visit to the pub (hint– it shouldn’t), then I for one would like our democratically elected politicians to determine where those lines are drawn, not an algorithm written by a Tech giant or an anonymous regulator.

Which brings me back to the weekend. My mistake wasn’t campaigning, or even tweeting about it, but rather not using the tools available to me to manage my social media and how I wanted to use it. I failed to protect myself. In an ideal world I shouldn’t have to – but my reality online is far from ideal, so going forward I will be limiting how I use social media (again) and how I engage with people. The reality is this doesn’t limit anyone else’s free expression, only my own. Which is my choice.

I run one of the oldest free expression organisations in the UK. We are 50 years old next month. I spend my professional life campaigning to make sure that the persecuted are heard – that people are not silenced for expressing themselves, protecting people’s right to have an opinion regardless of whether it is popular or not. I won’t spend my time defending the indefensible – the bullies, the racists, the misogynists, and the trolls. They have a right to speak but I have the right to ignore them, which is what they deserve.