India's government threatens to jail Twitter employees unless they block critics

Most of the accounts criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India’s government has warned Twitter that it must obey its orders to remove “inflammatory content” or employees will face potential jail time, Buzzfeed has reported. The government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made the edict after Twitter unblocked 257 accounts criticizing Modi’s government around farmer protests, after initially blocking them.

The accounts in question come from government opposition leaders, investigative journalism site The Caravan, along with other critics, journalists and writers. Some used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, referencing controversial proposed laws that farmers have said will reduce their income and make them more reliant on corporations.

After initially blocking the accounts, Twitter reversed its decision, saying the tweets constituted free speech and were newsworthy. In response, the IT ministry ordered them blocked again. “Twitter is an intermediary and they are obliged to obey directions of the government. Refusal to do so will invite penal action,” it told Twitter in a notice. It added that the hashtag was being used to “abuse, inflame and create tension in society on unsubstantiated grounds.”

The Caravan, which didn’t use the hashtag, said it was merely doing its job. “We don’t understand why suddenly the Indian government finds journalists should not speak to all sides of an issue,” executive editor Vinod K. Jose, told BuzzFeed News. “This is really problematic,” added internet activist and MediaNama editor Nikhail Pahwa.

Modi’s government was also incensed by western celebrities including Rhianna and Greta Thunberg who tweeted their support. Some Modi supporters railed against the tweets, including Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut. “No one is talking about it because they are not farmers, they are terrorists who are trying to divide India,” she wrote.

The latest development means Twitter, once again, must choose to either protect its employees and commercials interests, or be accused of aiding censorship in a volatile political situation. However, it may be forced to comply due to India’s IT laws that force social media platforms to remove “any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource” that could affect “public order.”