Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts including those belonging to news websites, activists and actors were suspended for more than 12 hours on Monday after the government said users were posting content inciting violence.
The move came in the wake of weeks-long protests by Indian farmers against a new farm bill. The protests turned violent last week when riot police were sent in. One demonstrator was killed and hundreds of people were injured including police officers.
An Indian government official said the home affairs ministry had demanded the suspension of “close to 250 Twitter accounts” that were allegedly posting content seeking to foment violence.
“The order was issued against accounts that were using the hashtag #modiplanningfarmersgenocide that started on 30 January,” the government source said.
Those blocked – including the investigative news site Caravan India, the political commentator Sanjukta Basu, the activist Hansraj Meena, the actor Sushant Singh, and the chief executive of the state-run broadcaster Prasar Bharti, Shashi Shekhar Vempati – were silenced inside India without warning and with little explanation, their pages carrying only the message “account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand”.
Also blocked were two popular accounts linked to the farmers’ protests: Kisan Ekta Morcha and Tractor2Twitr.
There was no public explanation or detail of the legal demand from the government. The accounts were still visible outside India and were restored inside the country late on Monday after about 12 hours offline.
Since November tens of thousands of Indian farmers have staged a protest camp at Ghazipur, on the outskirts of the capital, Delhi, demanding the repeal of agriculture laws that would loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce. The rules have insulated Indian farmers from the free market for decades. Farmers argue the reforms will leave them at the mercy of large agriculture corporations and destroy millions of families’ livelihoods.
Narendra Modi’s government denies this, saying the reforms open up new opportunities for farmers to sell their produce directly to private buyers.
The protests have been one of the most serious challenges to the authority of Modi’s government. Farmers make up almost half of India’s workforce.
A Twitter statement on “country-withheld content” said suspensions of accounts or content was routine, arguing “many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and Twitter account content”.
“If we receive a properly scoped request from an authorised entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”
It was Twitter policy to “promptly” notify holders of the affected accounts when it receives requests to withhold them, unless legally prohibited from doing so.
But Vinod Jose, the editorial director of the Caravan magazine, whose official Twitter account had more than 280,000 followers, told Reuters that Caravan had received no notification from Twitter. “This is akin to censorship. Twitter’s act follows multiple cases of sedition filed against Caravan editors for covering the farmers’ protests.”