Explained: The ’emergency powers’ used by India to block BBC documentary on PM Narendra Modi

A BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, which revisits Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, has created an uproar in the country. Days after the first episode was aired, the government blocked the series permanently using “emergency powers”.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting directed YouTube and Twitter to take down the links sharing the BBC documentary. The order was passed under the emergency provisions of the Information Technology Rules, 2021.

“Videos sharing @BBCWorld hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as ‘documentary’, on @YouTube and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules,” senior adviser Kanchan Gupta wrote on Twitter on Saturday, adding both YouTube and Twitter have complied with the order.

The former journalist said that multiple ministries, including home and external affairs, had examined the documentary and found it to be “casting aspersions on the authority and credibility” of the Supreme Court, creating divisions among Indian communities and making unsubstantiated allegations.

While the documentary is not been released in India, links and clips have surfaced on social media.

Also read: BBC’s hit-job on Narendra Modi not a one-off incident, shows growing British distrust for rising India

What are the emergency provisions?

The I&B ministry has emergency powers to block content that it believes is “detrimental to India’s integrity and sovereignty”. Rule 16 of the IT Rules, 2021, notified on February 25, 2021, refers to the government’s power of “blocking of information in case of emergency” and allows it to immediately remove content.

According to the rules, in case of an emergency where no delays are acceptable, the ministry’s secretary may as an “interim measure” issue directives to identified or identifiable persons, publishers or intermediaries to block public access to certain content upon satisfaction that it is “necessary or expedient and justifiable” to do so following a written recommendation from an authorised officer who has examined the content. This can be done without giving the intermediaries or publishers the opportunity of a hearing.

The I&B ministry can issue notices to takedown content to social media intermediaries like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The action can be initiated if the identified content falls within the criteria referred to in sub-section (1) of Section 69A of the IT Act on blocking public access to any information through a “computer resource”.

This sub-section states that the Union government can order content to be blocked in the interest of India’s sovereignty and integrity, defence, security, friendly relations with other nations or public order or for preventing incitement to commit a cognisable offence.

Also read: Dubious BBC ‘documentary’ on PM Modi serves a crucial purpose in showing India an unflattering mirrorHave emergency powers been used in the past?

Yes, this is not the first time the government has used the IT Act to block content. Since 2021, emergency provisions have been used on at least seven occasions, mostly to take down videos on YouTube.

On 12 December 2022, the government issued directions to block a Pakistan-based OTT platform Vidly TV. The website, two mobile applications, four social media accounts, and one smart TV app connected to it were banned.

Vidly TV caught the government’s attention after it released a web series titled Sevak: The Confessions, which portrayed an anti-India narrative on sensitive events from India’s history like the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the Babri Majid demolition, Operation Blue Star, the Malegaon blasts, among others.

On 26 September last year, the I&B ministry directed YouTube to delete 45 videos from 10 channels as the content included “fake news and morphed videos aimed at spreading hatred among religious communities”.

On 25 April last year, six Pakistan-based and 10 Indian YouTube channels were blocked for spreading misinformation related to national security, New Delhi’s foreign relations and communal disharmony.

The first time the ministry took action against Indian accounts was on 4 April 2022. Twenty-two YouTube-based new channels, one news website, and three Twitter and one Facebook accounts were directed to be taken down for posting content related to the Indian Army, Jammu and Kashmir and false content on the war in Ukraine. Of the 22 channels, 18 were from India, according to a report by The Indian Express.

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

Apps, websites and social media accounts of “Punjab Politics TV” which had close links to the outlawed Sikhs for Justice organisation were banned on 18 February 2022 for publicising content which had the potential to “incite communal harmony and separatism”.

The government blocked 35 news channels operation on YouTube, two Twitter and two Instagram accounts, one Facebook page and two websites for “spreading anti-India fake news” over digital media on 21 January 2022. The YouTube channels were all allegedly operating from Pakistan and apart from posting “sensitive” content related to the Indian Army, Jammu and Kashmir etc., and content to undermine the democratic process of the elections in five states.

On December 21, 2021, 20 YouTube channels and two websites operating from Pakistan were blocked for spreading “anti-India propaganda”. The channels posted “divisive content” on “Kashmir, Indian Army, minority communities in India, Ram Mandir, General Bipin Rawat, etc,” the I&B ministry said, reports The Indian Express.

While the I&B ministry releases a press statement announcing the directives to block content, in the case of the BBC documentary no such step has been taken. The information became public through a tweet thread posted by Kanchan Gupta, an advisor to the ministry.

Why has the documentary angered New Delhi?

The first episode of India: The Modi Question, which was released on 17 January, alleged that a team sent by the British government had found that Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, was “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that led to the violence against Muslims in 2022. The BBC has described the two-part film as a look at the “troubled relationship” between the Indian government and the Muslim minority following Modi’s re-election in 2019.

The BBC documentary revisits PM Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. AFP

The documentary has not been officially released in India, but its pirated versions and clips were circulating on social media platforms. Links to it and clips were posted by Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, and journalist Rana Ayyub.

The Ministry of External Affairs has dismissed the series, saying it reflected bias and a colonial mindset. Responding to a question about the documentary at the weekly media briefing last week, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi noted the film has not been screened in India and is not legally available on social media or streaming platforms.

“The bias, the lack of objectivity and frankly, a continuing colonial mindset is blatantly visible. If anything, this film or documentary is a reflection on the agency and individuals that are peddling this narrative again,” he said. “It makes us wonder about the purpose of this exercise and the agenda behind it and frankly we do not wish to dignify such efforts.”

With inputs from agencies

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