Twitter concerned for staff in India after row over account removals

Twitter has expressed concern for the safety of its employees in India after the company’s refusal to comply with a demand from the Indian government to remove more than 1,000 accounts connected to the farmer protests in the country.

In a statement, Twitter said it had reached out to the Indian government for a “formal dialogue” after the ministry of information and technology requested the removal of 1,178 listed Twitter handles it alleged were illicitly connected to Pakistan or the Sikh separatist Khalistan movement and spreading propaganda and misinformation.

The accounts under government scrutiny have been sharing material connected to the farmers’ protests, which began in November. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have since camped out at protest sites around Delhi and participated in huge marches and strikes to demand the repeal of new farm laws.

The farmers say the laws were passed without their consultation and that by bringing private sector investment into agriculture they will leave crop prices at the mercy of large corporations and put livelihoods at risk.

Last week, the Indian government threatened Twitter employees in India with fines and up to seven years’ jail time if the company did not comply with their demands for the removal of certain accounts alleged to be spreading “misinformation”.

Twitter has yet to obey the latest order from the Indian government, stating that “the tweets must continue to flow”.

In a statement, the company said: “Safety of our employees is a top priority for us at Twitter. We continue to be engaged with the government of India from a position of respect and have reached out to the Honourable Minister, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, for a formal dialogue.”

The statement said Twitter’s priority was the “open and free exchange of information” and that it would hold firm to its “fundamental values and commitment to protecting the public conversation”.

The Indian government had filed the order against Twitter under a section of the information technology act that allows the government to take action against social media posts and content that pose an alleged threat to public order.

A similar legal demand was made last week when the Indian government told Twitter to remove 257 accounts, some which were using the hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” – a reference to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi – and others which the government claimed were causing “instigation of people” and inflaming a “a public order situation”.

Twitter initially complied, and among the entities and people blocked were the long-form current affairs magazine The Caravan, the political commentator Sanjukta Basu, the farmers’ union Kisan Ekta Morcha and the chief executive of the state-run broadcasting agency Prasar Bharati. The US social media company came under huge criticism for what many saw as censorship on behalf of the Indian government, and after Twitter officials found “insufficient justification” for the complaints, the accounts were unblocked less than six hours later.

The unblocking of the accounts appeared to anger the Indian government, which accused Twitter of violating sovereign laws and said refusal to comply “will invite penal action”.

Twitter also recently came under criticism for suspending the account of the Indian journalist Salil Tripathi, a critic of the Modi government and its Hindu nationalist agenda, after he tweeted a political poem. After a backlash, Tripathi’s account was restored.

The row has come as the government has gone on the offensive over the increasing international attention and scrutiny of the protests.

Tweets by the pop singer Rihanna and the Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg drawing attention to the farmers’ cause have prompted outrage, and multiple Indian journalists reporting on controversial elements of the protests have been hit with sedition charges.

Speaking in parliament on Monday, Modi said that India was at risk from a “foreign destructive ideology”.


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