Fears of censorship grow as Modi begins third term

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi readies for his third term, he formally took the oath of office on Sunday, casting a shadow over the nation’s landscape of free speech and press freedom. With each successive term, Modi’s administration has faced criticism for tightening control over the media and curbing dissenting voices, with instances of journalists and activists facing harassment, intimidation, and even legal action for criticisng the government or expressing views contrary to the official narrative.

India’s extensive six-week election period concluded with a tally of 640 million votes on 4 June. In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) secured an outright majority by winning 292 seats out of the 543 seats, surpassing the 272 seats required for a clear majority in India’s lower house of Parliament.

Meer Faisal, a 23-year-old journalist and the founder of The Observer Post, an online news portal based in Delhi, holds little optimism regarding Modi’s government when it comes to censorship and freedom of expression in India. He has faced significant censorship in the past during Modi’s tenure for his coverage on atrocities against Muslims in India.  In October last year, his Twitter account faced restrictions in India due to his reporting.

“As a journalist, especially being a Muslim, it invites more censorship and trouble. The Modi government aims to silence every voice that speaks against them. They want to build a narrative in the country and label everyone who criticises government policies as anti-national,” said Faisal.

Faisal is among many in India who express fear concerning Modi’s third term, citing concerns beyond censorship to include threats to freedom of speech.

Since August 2019, the Modi government has also barred many Kashmiri journalists from travelling abroad, offering no explanation for restricting their fundamental rights.

“In Modi’s third term, I fear that there will be more harsh policies against journalists and more tactics will be employed to intimidate us. This will directly impact our reporting abilities and help authorities in curbing the voice of people,” said Faisal.

In the 2024 edition of the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, India is ranked 159th out of the 180 nations considered. “With violence against journalists, highly concentrated media ownership, and political alignment, press freedom is in crisis in “the world’s largest democracy”, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right,” RSF stated while releasing the data.

Asif Mujtaba, 34, an advocate for people’s rights and director of the Miles2smile Foundation—which works with survivors of mob lynching, communal violence, and selective communal demolition—believes that the space for dissent has significantly decreased since Modi came to power, and public participation in protests has also diminished.

“It’s become a tough task for social and political activists, regardless of any religion, to work for people’s rights under Modi’s regime. The government can use any stringent law to frame you and silence your voice,” saidMujtaba.

According to Mujtaba, many people in India are apprehensive about openly criticising Modi because they are aware of the potential repercussions. A significant number of individuals who were once vocal against the regime have now become quiet..

“Modi’s administration is aware of the escalating dissent and the potential for increased protests against their policies in the third term. The growing public dissent will force Modi to resort to heavy-handed tactics to silence the people,” said Mujtaba.

In the first four months of 2024, India has experienced at least 134 instances of free speech violation, impacting journalists, academics, YouTubers, and students, according to a report published by the Free Speech Collective in early May. The organisation tracks and categorises free speech violations and offers support to those affected.

Niranjan K S, 22, a fourth-year law student at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and a member of the All India Revolutionary Students Organisation (AIRSO), argues that the suppression of dissent is driven by the corporate-Hindutva fascist nexus, which aims to transform the country into a fascist dictatorship. As a result, free speech will be stifled, and only those who support the ruling forces will retain their right to free expression.

“The surge in the enforcement of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the uptick in political detentions, particularly aimed at students and activists like Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid, who were involved in the anti-CAA protests of 2019, demonstrate a systematic use of these draconian laws to quash all forms of dissent,” said Niranjan.

During the protests, students played an active role in amplifying the voices of the oppressed within the country. However, the BJP regime labeled these students as “anti-national” and “terrorists,” attempting to delegitimise their activism and dissent.

Niranjan emphasised that secularism and communal harmony are already under significant threat due to the Hindutva ideology of the current regime, which could further hinder free speech. “In this third term of the Modi government, the non-state elements of fascism will be more utilised to advance their offensive than the state elements,” said Niranjan.

Index on Censorship sought a response from a BJP spokesperson regarding censorship as Modi embarks on his historic third term. Answer came there none.

How artificial intelligence is influencing elections in India

It has less than six months since Divyendra Singh Jadoun, the 31-year-old founder of an artificial intelligence (AI) powered synthetic media company, started making content for political parties in India. Within this short time he has risen to be known as the “Indian Deepfaker” as several political parties across the ideological spectrum reach out to him for digital campaigning.

Jadoun’s meteoric rise has a lot to do with the fact that close to a billion people are voting in India’s elections, the longest and largest in the world, which started last month. He says he doesn’t know of a single political party that hasn’t sought him out to enhance their outreach. “They [political parties] don’t reach out to us directly, though. Their PR agencies and political consultants ask us to make content for them,” said Jadoun, who runs the AI firm Polymath, based in a small town known for its temples in the north Indian state of Rajasthan and which has nine employees.

In India’s fiercely divided election landscape, AI has emerged as a newfound fascination, particularly as the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vies for an unusual third consecutive term. The apprehension surrounding technology’s capabilities in a nation plagued by misinformation has raised concerns among experts.

Jadoun says his team has been asked many times to produce content which they find highly unethical. He has been asked to fabricate audio recordings that show rival candidates making embarrassing mistakes during their speeches or to overlay opponents’ faces onto explicit images.

“A lot of the content political parties or their agents ask us to make is on these lines, so we have to say no to a lot of work,” Jadoun told Index on Censorship.

Certain campaign teams have even sought subpar counterfeit videos from Jadoun, featuring their own candidate, which they intend to deploy to discredit any potentially damaging authentic footage that surfaces during the election period.

“We refuse all such requests. But I am not sure if every agency will have such filters, so we do see a lot of misuse of technology in these elections,” he says.

“What we offer is simply replacing the traditional methods of campaigning by using AI. For example, if a leader wants to shoot a video to reach out to each and every one of his party members, it will take a lot of time. So we use some parts of deep-fakes to create personalised messages for their party members or cadres,” Jadoun adds.

Pervasive use

India’s elections are deeply polarised and the ruling right-wing BJP has employed a vicious anti-minority campaign to win over the majority Hindu voters- who roughly form 80% of the electorate. The surge in use of AI reflects both its potential and the concerns, amidst widespread misinformation. A survey by cybersecurity firm McAfee, taken last year, found that over 75% of Indian internet users have encountered various types of deepfake content while online.

Some of the most disturbing content features various dead politicians have been resurrected through AI to sway voters. Earlier this year, regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Party’s (AIADMK) official account shared an audio clip featuring a virtual rendition of Jayalalithaa, a revered Tamil political figure who passed away in 2016. In the speech, her AI avatar aimed to inspire young party members, advocating for the party’s return to power and endorsing current candidates for the 2024 general elections.

Jayalalithaa’s AI resurrection is not an isolated case.

In another instance, just four days prior to the start of India’s general election, a doctored video appeared on Instagram featuring the late Indian politician H Vasanthakumar. In the video, Vasanthakumar voices support for his son Vijay Vasanth, a sitting Member of Parliament who is contesting the election in his father’s erstwhile constituency.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its use of technology to polarise voters, has also shared a montage showcasing Prime Minister Modi’s accomplishments on its verified Instagram profile. The montage featured the synthesized voice of the late Indian singer Mahendra Kapoor, generated using AI.

Troll accounts subscribing to the ideology of different political parties are also employing AI and deepfakes to create narratives and counter-narratives. Bollywood star Ranveer Singh in a tweet last month cautioned his followers to be vigilant against deepfakes as a manipulated video circulated on social media platforms, where Singh appeared to criticise Modi. Using an AI-generated voice clone, the altered video falsely portrayed Singh lambasting Modi over issues of unemployment and inflation, and advocating for citizens to support the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC). In reality, he had praised Modi in the original video.

“AI has permeated mainstream politics in India,” said Sanyukta Dharmadhikari – deputy editor of Logically Facts, who leads a team of seven members to fact-check misinformation in different vernacular languages.

Dharmadhikari says that countering disinformation or misinformation becomes extremely difficult in an election scenario as false information consistently spreads more rapidly than fact-checks, particularly when it aligns with a voter’s confirmation bias. “If you believe a certain politician is capable of a certain action, a deepfake portraying them in such a scenario can significantly hinder fact-checking efforts to dispel that misinformation,” she told Index on Censorship.

Selective curbs

Amidst growing concerns, the Indian government rushed to regulate AI by asking tech companies to obtain approval before releasing new tools, just a month before elections. This is a substantial shift from its earlier position when it informed Indian Parliament of not interfering in how AI is being used in the country. Critics argue that the move might be another attempt to selectively weigh down on opposition and limit freedom of expression. The Modi government has been widely accused of abusing central agencies to target the opposition while overlooking allegations involving its own leaders or that of its coalition partners.

“There needs to be a political will to effectively regulate AI, which seems amiss,” says Dharmadhikari. “Even though the Information Ministry at first seemed concerned at the misuse of deepfakes, but gradually we have seen they have expressed no concerns about their dissemination especially if something is helping [PM] Modi,” she added.

Chaitanya Rohilla, a lawyer based in Delhi, who initiated a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) at the Delhi High Court concerning the unregulated use of AI and deepfakes in the country believes that as technology unfolds at breakneck speed, the need for robust legal frameworks to safeguard against AI’s emerging threats is more pressing than ever.

“The government is saying that we are working on it…We are working on rules to bring about or to specifically target these deepfakes. But the problem is the pace at which the government is working, it is actually not in consonance with how the technology is changing,” Rohilla told Index on Censorship.

Rohilla’s PIL had requested the judiciary to restrict access to websites that produce deepfakes. The proposal suggested that such websites should be mandated to label AI-generated content and be prohibited from generating illicit material.

But Indian courts have refused to intervene.

“The information Technology Act that we have in our country is not suitable; it’s not competent to handle how dynamically the AI environment is changing. So as the system is unchecked and unregulated it (deepfake dissemination) would just keep on happening and happening.”

India’s Right to Know under threat as social media giants bend to censorship

Last week Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shocked the world by claiming that Canadian resident and Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar had been assassinated by Indian government agents in an act of foreign interference. For months after Nijjar’s death in June, Canadian Sikhs reported that they too were dealing with Indian government interference: the government of India was frequently ordering Facebook to take down their posts relating to Nijjar’s death. Prominent Sikh accounts and civilians alike found their posts blocked or unpublished due to “legal demands” coming directly from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in what may be the Indian government’s attempt to export its draconian censorship culture to discourse overseas.

All this has unfolded just ahead of the International Day for Universal Access to Information, which falls on 28 September. The Right to Know Day, as it is otherwise known, hails information access via the internet as a tool to protect human rights.

It is not the first time civilians - both within and outside of India - have faced obstacles on social media platforms for posting information or opinions that go against Modi’s carefully crafted narrative. Ultimately the Right to Know does not exist in Modi’s India and social media platforms like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram are part of the problem, kowtowing to Indian-government pressure to censor dissent.

Take the example of X CEO Elon Musk, whose proud defenses of free speech are undermined by his frequent capitulation to the demands of Indian government censors. He adopted a surprisingly meek tone when asked by the BBC about why X had blocked content relating to India: the Modi Question, a BBC documentary released earlier this year that exposes Modi’s complicity in episodes of massive anti-Muslim violence.

"The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can't go beyond the laws of a country,” Musk told the BBC after X complied with Modi’s demand to delete all links to watch the film. “If we have a choice of either our people go to prison, or we comply with the laws, we'll comply with the laws."

“Quite strict” is putting it lightly. The Modi government’s censorship aims to remake India, transforming it from a secular democracy into a Hindu supremacist nation, one where religious minorities, specifically Muslims and Christians, are stripped of their basic human rights and reduced to second-class citizens. Any disapproval of Modi or his authoritarian goals is suppressed via the Information Technology Act, which forces social media platforms to “fact-check” all content posted about the government. These expansive powers – which Human Rights Watch cites as “enabling state surveillance” – allows the government to censor virtually any content it labels as “disinformation”, “objectionable” or “anti-national”.

The resulting crackdown on free speech has contributed to India’s top-5 ranking in the list of countries that submitted censorship requests to X in 2022. That same year, India also became the world leader in internet shutdowns, after blacking out web access a shocking 84 times. Over half of these incidents were imposed on Muslim-majority Kashmir, shortly after Modi stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status.

Censorship tightened its grip in response to mounting civil resistance in India. In the early months of 2020, as Delhi witnessed a surge in anti-Muslim violence, farmers rallied against unjust farm laws, and the government struggled to manage the Covid-19 crisis under Modi's leadership, X reported that the government made over 2,700 official requests for content removal. Content related to the protests led by Muslims against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act was also subject to removal, and the accounts of activists were blocked. By the end of the year, nearly 10,000 tweets had been deleted. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, most of these tweets were mere opinions on these events, satirical posts and expressions of solidarity with protesters.

Any attempts by journalists and activists to counter the pro-Modi propaganda circulated by mostly corporate-controlled media are labeled “anti-national” and met with consequences. In Kashmir, where human rights abuses by security forces are widespread, journalists who post content on rights violations can face detention under draconian anti-terror laws. Those who debunk Hindu supremacist propaganda, like prominent Muslim journalist Mohammad Zubair, arrested in 2022 over a 2018 tweet, have received notices from X claiming that their fact-checking posts violate Indian law.

Just days ago, the Jammu and Kashmir police reportedly claimed to have secured the direct cooperation of social media giants to access information on users engaged in spreading “anti-national sentiment” - an allegation often leveled by the regime against activists, journalists and everyday civilians who criticise the government or Hindu nationalism. Without access to secure private communications, information sharing in India will surely undergo a serious chilling effect.

All the while hate speech against minorities appears to be given a free pass in India. A prime example is within Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is notorious for running an IT cell partially dedicated to harassing and threatening their critics with armies of online trolls. The IT cell also seeks to scare civilians into voting for the BJP by flooding Facebook, WhatsApp and X with fear-mongering propaganda against Muslims, often describing them as violent freeloaders.

Other Hindu extremists also rely on social media to promote and carry out violence, posting everything from slur-filled tweets to horrific videos of Muslims being violently attacked. Mainstream “news” personality Suresh Chavhanke, who consistently refers to Muslims as “terrorists”, once posted on X asking his hundreds of millions of followers if he should shoot a group of Muslims. A well-known Hindu militant accused of sparking deadly violence against Muslims, Monu Manesar, received a Gold Play Button from YouTube for running a massively popular channel that filmed and glorified cow vigilante attacks against Muslims.

Another influential Hindu militant, Bittu Bajrangi, uploaded hate speeches to social media that some have alleged played a direct role in triggering mass violence in Haryana state last month.

Posts offering firearms for sale in Hindu militant Facebook groups have gone untouched for an extensive period of time, while Facebook responded to activist concerns by claiming such posts didn’t violate any community policies. (Only after the Wall Street Journal inquired into the posts did Facebook finally take them down.)

The promotion of hateful content at the expense of marginalised voices across all these platforms is troubling to say the least. Facebook, X and other platforms are aiding in the death of free speech in India. Abetting these human rights abuses on such a massive scale is unacceptable. They should be protecting the right to freedom of information in India and wherever they operate, instead of helping foreign governments along in their spiral towards autocracy. They must learn from Facebook’s own role in the Rohingya genocide, following which victims in the USA and the UK took legal action against the social media firm, accusing it of failing to prevent incitement of violence.

It is long past time for social media companies to stand up to the censorship demands of the Modi regime and stand behind the Right to Know in India and elsewhere.

Rasheed Ahmed is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Indian American Muslim Council, the USA’s oldest and largest Indian Muslim diaspora organisation

India tightens grip on social media platforms

India is a globally important market for the social media platform Twitter. Even though in absolute numbers its 23 to 24 million users is small compared to the size of the population of what is now thought to be the world’s most populous country, it is believed to be the platform’s third biggest market after the US and Japan.

Recent events relating to India and Twitter should therefore be taken in context of the country’s importance for Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk.

Even before Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022, Narendra Modi’s government has not been slow to ask the platform to remove content which it disagrees with.

India has been in the top five nations that have asked Twitter to remove content or block accounts for the past three years. In its July 2022 transparency report, Twitter said that 97% of the total global volume of legal demands for such removals in the last half of 2021 originated from five countries: Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and India.

You could argue that because Twitter has so many users in the country, this is inevitable. However, the US does not feature in this list despite being the biggest market.

The Indian government clearly has a problem with what its critics are saying on Twitter.

In line with the worsening situation for media freedom in the country, India frequently clamps down on what the media is able to say on Twitter. In the last half of 2021, India was the country making the highest number of legal demands relating to the accounts of verified journalists and news outlets, some 114 out of a total of 326 for the period, comfortably ahead of Turkey and Russia.

A new onslaught on what Indians are saying on Twitter may have opened up last week. On 6 April, an amendment to India’s Information Technology Act came into force which now requires social media platforms to fact-check any post relating to the Indian government’s business with the Press Information Bureau, a “fact-checking” unit that is part of the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The threat to social media platforms who do not comply with this is that they would then no longer be protected by the country’s safe harbour regulations under which they are currently not liable for what their users post.

The Indian digital liberties organisation Internet Freedom Foundation says it is “deeply concerned” by the amendments.

It said in a statement: “Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise. The notification of these amended rules cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists, activists, etc.”

Twitter has long published details of how it handles requests from governments. In the event of a successful legal demand, such as a court order, Twitter follows these rules if it is required to delete individual tweets or an entire account. Typically these rules relate to a single country.

Under Musk’s ownership, these rules look as though they are changing.

Indian investigative journalist Saurav Das wrote recently about discovering that a number of his tweets had been removed and that they were not available worldwide. He told Scroll.In that  tweets relating to Union Home Minister Amit Shah had been removed worldwide, not just in India.

The tweets seem relatively benign, although Das says he cannot remember exactly the context around posting them.

Tweeting on 9 April in response Das said, “Can Twitter allow the Indian government to sit in judgement over content that it may deem fit for blocking in America, or any other country apart from India?”.

He added, “If this global restriction of content on behest of a country’s govt is ignored, this will open a whole new chapter of censorship and prove disastrous for free speech and expression.”

Twitter's actions seem to fly in the face of its stated policy - pre-Musk ownership - towards India. In 2021, Twitter said that it would only block content and accounts within India and said it would not do so for “news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians”. That scope now appears to have changed.

I asked Twitter’s press team for a statement on the case and received an automated email containing just a poop emoji. This has been a common response from Twitter’s press email since Elon Musk’s takeover, when the press team was significantly reduced.

During Elon Musk’s surprise interview with the BBC this week, Musk was asked about the issue of censorship of social media in India in the wake of the country banning the BBC's documentary on Narendra Modi. Musk said: “The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can’t go beyond the laws of a country…if we have a choice of either our people go to prison or we comply with the laws, we’ll comply with the laws.”