With elections looming, Modi and Erdogan are going after fake news
IN GLOBAL NEWS
Indian officials searched BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai earlier this week, seizing journalists’ mobile phones and other devices as part of an alleged investigation into tax evasion. This is just the latest in a series of threats against media that have played out in India in recent years. For its part, BBC has been in the crosshairs since the airing of a documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, that resulted in the killing of a thousand people, most of them Muslim. As we reported last month, officials did all they could to bar people from seeing the film in India. But the BBC is just one among many media outlets that have become targets of the regime because of their reporting. More on this below.
Turkish President Erdogan seems concerned as ever about his public image following last week’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake that has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people in Turkey and Syria. He put the public on notice, warning in a speech that authorities are “closely monitoring those who are trying to polarize the nation through fake news and distortions.” Indeed, publicly reporting on or criticizing the state’s response has become a risky move for journalists and anyone on social media. State security authorities tweeted that they had identified hundreds of social media accounts for sharing “provocative posts about the earthquake on social media platforms” or posts that aimed to “spread fear or panic among the public.” Officials said 47 account holders had been either detained or arrested, and reports of journalists being investigated or barred from covering the quake continue to roll in. The government also has swiftly rolled out a “Disinformation Reporting Service” app where anyone can file reports about “manipulative” information in the news or on social media. For more, I recommend Arzu Geybullayeva’s coverage of media repression in Turkey for Global Voices.
Social media users are under fire in Peru after two months of intense protests and deadly confrontations between security forces and demonstrators. Authorities have paved the way for members of the public to report social media users suspected of supporting or inciting “acts of terrorism” through a public web portal. This is a direct reference to the protests themselves, which have raged since authorities arrested president Pedro Castillo for attempting to dissolve congress leading up to an impeachment vote. A leftist and relative newcomer to Peru’s political sphere, Castillo has broad support among working class people. Vice President Dina Boluarte has since taken office and become the country’s sixth president in just five years. She appears to have aligned herself with far-right politicians who characterize protesters as “terrorists,” a practice known as “terruqueo” in Peru.
Amnesty International’s Peru office called the portal a tool for “harassment and criminalization in the current context of socio-political crisis in which social protests are strongly repressed and critical positions towards the government are loaded with accusations of ‘terruqueo.’
MODI’S CRUSADE AGAINST ‘FAKE NEWS’
By: Alishan Jafri
It is becoming ever-more difficult to criticize the government and ruling Bharatiya Janata party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whether you’re making a documentary, writing for a newspaper or just tweeting your opinion.
As elections in India inch closer, the Modi government has introduced a draft policy that would effectively establish a social media censorship arm within the fact-checking unit of the government’s Press Information Bureau. Proposed amendments (to the country’s already-restrictive 2021 IT Rules) would empower the unit to order social media companies to pull down content that it marks as false information. The period for public comment on the amendment will end next week.
It is worth underlining how preposterous it is that the Modi government has empowered itself to be an arbiter of truth, given its notoriety for spreading false information to achieve political gain. If the proposed amendments are adopted, they will further strengthen the regime’s sway over dominant narratives on social media and bolster the attempts of his political party, the BJP to rein in all forms of critical media and instead promote its own narrative agenda. This is information control, plain and simple, and it is happening despite checks and balances built into the system to prevent exactly this type of abuse.
This particular change would also increase state control over Big Tech in the country. The 2021 IT Rules forced foreign social media companies — namely Meta, Google, and Twitter, which took its time to comply — to establish offices in-country and appoint special staffers for those offices, including an “India-based Nodal contact person for 24/7 availability for coordination with law enforcement agencies.” In lay terms, this means that companies now must adjudicate content according to the government’s wishes, or else risk being banished from the 1.4 billion-strong market. Twitter’s most recent transparency report revealed that India topped the list of countries with demands to block content posted by verified journalists. Interestingly, Turkey was also right up there.
DigiPub, a consortium of independent online media in India, published a brusque reaction to the amendments, arguing that they would give the government of India “arbitrary and discretionary power” to decide whether or not online content is “fake,” and could “undermine a journalist’s duty to speak truth to power and thereby undercut the principles of accountability/transparency and have the potential to suppress not just fake news but the truth.” This view was echoed in the editorials of major newspapers across India. Legal experts at India’s Internet Freedom Foundation have pointed out that the proposed changes circumvent parliamentary procedures and run afoul of the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
In the wake of the loud flak, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, said that if media organizations can demonstrate how the proposed alterations impede their work, the government can rephrase the amendments. But it’s hard to imagine at this stage that the move won’t result in even more pressure on media and independent voices to either toe the line or stay silent.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Last week, I interviewed tech law expert Farieha Aziz about the Pakistani government’s decision to block Wikipedia over “sacreligious” content. The ban has already been lifted, and Aziz wrote an enlightening critique of the debacle for Dawn.
- Drones and spy balloons are capturing more than their share of headlines these days, but they’re probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the overlap between big tech and the military. Writing for the Transnational Institute last week, anthropologist Roberto González argued that “it is impossible to fully understand the U.S. military today without an analysis of its deep connections to the tech industry.” Yikes.
- A new report by Moira Weigel, for Data & Society, looks at third-party sellers on Amazon and highlights how the e-commerce giant has “given rise to new kinds of small businesses — ones optimized for Amazon.”