thumb-2023-03-05-twitter-censorship-canada-india This article is more than 1 year old

Twitter is Censoring Canadian News Outlets and Politicians Tweeting About Civil Liberties in India

The social media company is blocking Canadian news outlets, politicians and activists speaking out about a 'mega crackdown' by Indian police

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Canadian news organizations and federal political leaders are having their accounts blocked by Twitter after tweeting about the Indian government’s suppression of civil liberties in Punjab.

The Indian government has taken draconian measures to suppress “anti-national sentiments” in the state of Punjab, including cutting Internet access for millions, banning group gatherings and invoking colonial-era laws that give police the power to detain people for up to 12 months without charges, as they search for Amritpal Singh, a popular but controversial Sikh activist and separatist figure.

Police in Punjab justify their self-described “mega crackdown” as a way to stop the spread of “fake news,” but critics say authorities are silencing dissent and helping the government spread disinformation.

The crackdown has also impacted the ability of Canadian journalists and politicians to provide accurate information or voice concerns.

A number of Canadian politicians from different parties, including federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative MP Tim Uppal, Canada’s former Minister of Democratic Institutions, both had their accounts blocked in India by Twitter after tweeting about the situation in Punjab.

For Twitter users in India, clicking on any of those accounts yields a page stating: “Account Withheld – This account has been withheld in Indian in response to a legal demand.”

Twitter, which was purchased by billionaire Elon Musk last year for $44 billion in order to protect “free speech,” did not respond to questions about the bans from PressProgress.

Twitter’s move to block accounts has also led to one Canadian news organization, Baaz News, whose journalism focuses on the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora, to be blocked in India as well.

Jaskaran Sandhu, co-founder of Baaz News, says Twitter is blocking Sikh journalists and news organizations both inside and outside of India.

“The censorship is very wide reaching. As of right now, over 100 or so accounts have been censored and that list is growing,” Sandhu told PressProgress. “It’s interesting to note who’s being censored, which is almost entirely Sikh accounts.”

Sandhu says the scale at which Twitter is blocking accounts is “unprecedented,” but no reason is being provided for why certain accounts are being withheld.

“They censored it, but they didn’t actually indicate the specific tweets that are in contravention of India’s Information Technology Act,” Sandhu said. “They’re just outright withholding accounts, whether or not they’ve engaged in anything that is actually contrary to Indian law.”

Sandhu adds that this has grave implications for press freedom in India.

“While India tries to portray itself as a pluralistic liberal democracy, it is actually what the Freedom House ranks as an electoral autocracy in this very authoritative way that it controls press freedom,” said Sandhu. “You have a very coordinated effort to suppress information and control the narrative.”

Sandhu adds that while Sikh news organizations are actively being silenced and sources are being arrested, both the federal government, which is pursuing trade deals with India, and the broader Canadian media have been largely silent about the stifling of press freedom in India.

“People are being censored or people are being silenced. So there’s a huge chilling effect that’s happening,” said Sandhu.

While many accounts providing information or discussing the continued repression of human rights in India are suspended, accounts levelling hate and death threats remain active.

“It’s important to note the kinds of accounts that haven’t been censored – accounts that have been spreading fake news, accounts pushing state narratives and propaganda, accounts spreading hate and death threats, including to Canadian politicians all remain uncensored,” said Sandhu.

“They have not been withheld, nor have they faced any action. It’s actually very disturbing.”

Balpreet Singh, Legal Counsel at the World Sikh Organization, whose account is also blocked in India, says that in addition to accounts being blocked, “anyone that expresses concern is being flooded with abuse from Indian IT cells.”

“Everyone who has tweeted about this expressing concern, or calling for accountability or a return to civil rights in India has faced an onslaught of abuse,” Singh told PressProgress, adding that it “appears to be a coordinated move.”

Singh says Canadian politicians, including Singh and Uppal, are being threatened, in some cases by accounts that are verified by Twitter and belong to representatives of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Liberal MPs such as Randeep Sarai, Sonia Sidhu and Iqwinder Gaheer have also been repeatedly threatened by BJP and Indian nationalist accounts.

The coordinated campaign often includes Indian accounts, some of which are verified, telling Canadian politicians, journalists and Sikh activists to “come to India if they are so concerned.”

Raman Malik, spokesperson for the BJP from Haryana, tweeted at Uppal, Pierre Poilievre’s Deputy Leader, stating: “ “We will hunt you.”

BJP spokesperson threatens Conservative MP Tim Uppal


“Any threats from India are unacceptable, but when you have BJP spokespersons, ruling party members who are making these threats— that completely blows my mind,” Singh said. “How is this acceptable?”

Mo Dhaliwal, Canadian co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation, says he too has faced “hundreds of death threats a day” since speaking out about the situation in Punjab.

Dhaliwal says he is surprised to see the lack of action by the Canadian government despite repeated human rights violations by India, and the repeated targeting of Canadians.

“When you’re living as a transnational community, you aren’t really safe in Canada either,” Dhaliwal told PressProgress. “Yes, you might be individually saved from bodily harm, but we have relatives, we have fears of being doxed, we have fears of being exposed, we have fears of our connections in Punjab being exposed, because if they can’t get to us, there’s plenty of people in Punjab they can get to.”

“Why has this nation been given a pass? We’re still having dialogue as if they haven’t been a perpetrator of genocides and mass violence.”

Dhaliwal added that even within conversations about foreign interference in Canada, India is rarely mentioned.

“Even within that discourse, for whatever reason, there’s been no room for the conversation around the decades of confirmed interference and intelligence operations by India conducted in Canada.”

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The continued threats are raising concerns for Sikhs in diaspora communities abroad, who say that the blackout conditions leave Sikhs in a vulnerable position.

“This is exactly what happened in 1984, which saw the mass genocide of Sikhs in India, it was under these blackout conditions, so it’s all very worrisome,” Singh said.

“Canada has a duty to speak out against these sort of human rights abuses, and particularly so when Canada is being invited to G20 meetings in India.”

On Tuesday, Jagmeet Singh issued a statement on his Instagram page, calling for the boycott of G20 events in Chandigarh and Kashmir, and the banning of BJP officials that made threats against Canadian minorities and politicians.


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Rumneek Johal
Rumneek Johal is PressProgress' BC Reporter. Her reporting focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism.

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