The ministry of electronics and information technology has denied a right-to-information application seeking information about MEITY’s order to block The Caravan’s Twitter account in January this year. The ministry cited a threat to India’s security, sovereignty and integrity if the information is released in the public domain. The ministry’s first appellate authority cited the same ground to dismiss an appeal against the decision to withhold the information. It remains unclear how the Twitter account of a national media organisation compromised India’s security, sovereignty or integrity.
On 30 April 2021, I filed an RTI before MEITY requesting a list of all usernames and hashtags that the central government had directed Twitter to block. Three months earlier, on 31 January, MEITY had passed an order to block 257 links on Twitter, including tweets and accounts, and one hashtag—“#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide.” MEITY claimed that these links were “spreading misinformation about protests and has the potential to lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country.” The Caravan had not ever used the hashtag in question. Given the lack of transparency on the issue, it is unknown how many of the other 256 links had used the hashtag.
On 1 February, the news agency ANI quoted unnamed “sources” to state that MEITY had issued the blocking order “on the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs and law enforcement agencies to prevent any escalation of law and order in view of the on-going farmer agitation.” In the preceding week, The Caravan had reported on the death of the farmer Navreet Singh during the tractors rally in Delhi. Eyewitnesses to his death, family members, and forensic experts who studied the post-mortem report had told The Caravan that Navreet had been shot dead, while the Delhi Police claimed he had died by accident, while speeding on his tractor. In the days after Navreet’s death, police in different Indian states registered FIRs against several journalists that reported on his case, including The Caravan’s editors and owner, accusing them of offences such as sedition and promoting enmity.
MEITY had issued the order under Rule 9 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, which lays down the procedure for “blocking of information in cases of emergency.” As per the rules, a designated officer of the central government is permitted to issue orders for blocking information without providing the intermediary platform—Twitter, in this instance—an opportunity to be heard. The rules further state that after the blocking order is issued, it must be considered within 48 hours by a committee comprising representatives of the home ministry, the law ministry, and the information and broadcasting ministry.
In its 31 January order, MEITY had directed Twitter to block the 257 links under Rule 9, and scheduled a meeting with the committee on the next day, at 3 pm. Twitter only complied with the government order on the next day, shortly before the committee meeting. In the meeting, Twitter submitted its response to the notice, stating that it would not be complying with the order because it concerned “significant issues relating to freedom of speech.” In its response, Twitter also pointed out that there was “insufficient justification” to block accounts in entirety. By the evening of 1 February, Twitter had withdrawn the blocking order.