Indian journalist Mohammed Zubair appeared before a judge on Tuesday after being arrested over a Twitter post, a move criticized by press and human rights groups as an attack on freedom of expression.
Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews, was arrested by Delhi police on Monday over a 2018 tweet that an anonymous Twitter user claimed hurt religious sentiments.
KCP Malhotra, the deputy police commissioner of the police cybercrime division, said in a TV interview on Tuesday that Zubair’s four-year-old tweet “justified his interrogation in custody and we submitted the same to the court.”
The tweet showed a screenshot from a 1983 comedy film in which a hotel sign had been changed from Honeymoon to Hanuman Hotel, the name of a Hindu deity.
Zubair’s arrest has fueled outrage over freedom of expression in India. The Indian press organization Editors Guild of India described his arrest as “extremely worrying”.
The move comes as Twitter comes under renewed scrutiny in India after the social media platform shut down a spate of accounts and posts in the country this week at the request of the government.
Free speech advocates say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is stepping up pressure on popular social media platforms, a year after it introduced tough rules that widened the scope under which companies could be held criminally liable.
twitters last major dispute with the Indian government The account suspension came in February 2021 as the government faced mass protests from farmers over controversial new farm legislation. After initially complying with New Delhi’s order to freeze influential accounts, Twitter chose to restore many of the journalists and activists after a public outcry.
“The truth is that Facebook and Twitter are in India because India is a big market,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the question naturally arises: do they serve their customers or do they serve the state? And that’s a question these companies need to ask themselves.”
The developments come as Modi attends the G7 summit, where countries like India have pledged to protect freedom of expression.
Twitter this week blocked users registered in India from seeing multiple accounts run by activists central to the anti-government peasant protest movement, as well as Pakistani embassies in Iran, Turkey, Egypt and the UN.
A tranche of individual tweets were also made invisible to Indian users, including one of Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub and others from Washington-based freedom of speech monitor Freedom House. Twitter declined to comment.
New Delhi has the legal right to block social media posts when it deems it in the interests of Indian sovereignty, national security and good foreign relations, or when the content may encourage a criminal offense.
But activists say that this blanket definition often obscures the government’s rationale for censoring online material.
“While this seems to be most visible on Twitter, it’s likely happening on other platforms as well,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, adding that Twitter publishes the requests through a database , while other companies do not.
According to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report, covering the period January to June 2021, India accounted for 11 percent of legal claims received globally.
During the peasant protests in early 2021, Twitter said it ignored government orders to ban certain accounts of reporters, activists and politicians because The social media platform “did not believe that the actions we were ordered to take were consistent with Indian law”.
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