India ‘threatens to jail Twitter employees’ amid criticism over farmers protests

The Indian government has reportedly threatened to punish employees of Twitter with fines and jail terms of up to seven years for failing to suspend hundreds of accounts that were deemed critical of the Modi administration.

Amid months-long protests by farmers in India, the government has issued a series of orders demanding Twitter block accounts tweeting under the hashtag "ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide", arguing that the trending phrase is particularly inflammatory and could lead to further violent unrest.

Twitter did move to make more than 250 accounts inaccessible to India-based users following directions from the IT ministry on Monday, but reversed the move after about six hours following a major public outcry. The suspended accounts included the investigative news magazine The Caravan.

The social media site reportedly told the government it would not be complying with the directive on the basis that the accounts and tweets in question either constituted "free speech" or were "newsworthy".

The ministry was reportedly "astonished" by this noncompliance and issued a further directive to Twitter saying that the site was compelled to act or face consequences under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

The law allows the government to block public access "to any information... in any computer resource" where it deems it necessary to maintain public order. It includes a provision that an "intermediary" – in this case Twitter – failing to comply with a government directive "shall be punished with imprisonment of up to seven years and a fine".

According to the legal website Bar and Bench, a follow-up notice issued to Twitter on Tuesday said the government found it "astonishing that Twitter, despite being bound by statutory provisions (in India) validly enacted by the competent legislature is commenting upon 'significant issues relating to freedom of speech'".

The ministry said in the notice that it believed the "genocide" hashtag was “instigating people to commit cognisable offences in relation to public order and security of the state”.  

What is only the latest disagreement between Twitter and the government comes amid large-scale farmer protests that has caused political upheaval in India. Thousands of farmers have camped out around the Indian national capital for the past three months, demanding the repeal of agricultural reforms that they fear will leave them beholden to big corporations.

Previously, the Indian government criticised Twitter after it appeared to show part of its territory in Kashmir as belonging to neighbour China, sending a stern letter to CEO Jack Dorsey. Twitter called it a technical glitch in geo-tagging and said it would resolve the issue.

The latest demand by the Indian government puts the company in a difficult position, as it weighs its global commitment to its free speech clause with the need to comply with local laws in the countries where it operates.

On Thursday, Twitter pulled down two tweets by the controversial and politically right-leaning actress Kangana Ranaut, flagging that the tweets “violated the Twitter rules”.

It came after the staunch Modi supporter responded to a tweet by the singer Rihanna by calling the protesting farmers “terrorists” and the singer a “fool”. 

A single tweet by Rihanna on Tuesday, asking “why are we not talking” about the farmer protests, riled up social media in the country, leading the foreign ministry to issue a statement and Bollywood celebrities, who were up till now silent on the issue, to speak out against the pop singer and in favour of national unity.

A spokesperson for Twitter in India declined to comment when contacted by The Independent.