Elon Musk shrugs off criticism that he has helped India censor BBC’s Modi documentary

Indian government ordered YouTube and Twitter to block content related to BBC’s two-part series using emergency powers

Namita Singh
Thursday 26 January 2023 12:10 GMT
Related: 24 convicted for Gujarat massacre of Muslims

Elon Musk has shrugged off responsibility for censorship of a BBC documentary examining prime minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, after the social media giant received widespread criticism for complying with a directive from the Indian government.

Mr Musk, who previously positioned himself as a “free speech absolutist”, refused to be blamed for the platform’s actions in India. Feigning ignorance, he said it was “not possible” for him to “fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight” while also running his two other companies – Tesla and SpaceX.

Google-owned YouTube and Mr Musk’s Twitter have been receiving flak for complying with the Indian government’s demand to prevent users from sharing the documentary. It reports for the first time a British intelligence report that held Mr Modi “directly responsible” for the Gujarat riots in 2002, where potentially thousands of Muslims were massacred, when he was the state’s chief minister.

The government had ordered both YouTube and Twitter to block content related to the BBC’s two-part series, “India: The Modi Question”, using emergency powers under the country’s information and technology law, Kanchan Gupta, an adviser to the government, said on his Twitter handle on last Saturday.

The two-part documentary has not been broadcast in India by the BBC, but India’s federal government has had some success blocking people from sharing clips on social media, including attempts to copy and share unofficial versions.

While YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon told The Intercept that a version of the documentary was pulled down because of a copyright claim by the BBC, he declined to comment on takedown demands from the right-wing Indian government.

Twitter also blocked posts by Indian parliamentarian Derek O’ Brien. “[Twitter], [Twitter India] has taken down my tweet of the BBC Documentary, it received lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of views,” the lawmaker wrote, sharing screengrabs of his deleted tweet.

The Indian authorities have also been scrambling to halt unofficial screenings of the film organised in colleges and universities, including seemingly by cutting power and internet services off during an attempted viewing at Delhi’s premier social sciences institute, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The Delhi police on Wednesday detained several students from another major university, Jamia Millia Islamia, after the left-wing Students Federation of India attempted to screen the documentary there.

“A screening… was to be organised by a group of Jamia students,… which was not allowed by (the) university administration,” deputy commissioner of police Esha Pandey told the Indian Express. “The administration informed police that some students were creating a ruckus on streets, and a total of 13 students were detained around 4pm to ensure peace in the area.”

The security forces’ deployment outside the campus has also increased with police standing guard in riot gear at almost all gates of the university on Thursday. The university administrators have warned that disciplinary action will be taken against those who attempt to host screenings.

The censorship of the documentary has been met with criticism from opposition parties.

“You can ban, you can suppress the press, you can control the institutions … but the truth is the truth. It has a nasty habit of coming out,” said Rahul Gandhi, a leading figure from the opposition Congress party.

Trinamool Congress lawmaker Mahua Moitra tweeted a link to the documentary saying: “Good, bad, or ugly – we decide. Govt doesn’t tell us what to watch.”

The first part of the documentary, released last week by the BBC for its UK audiences, included a previously unpublished report from the UK Foreign Office that held Mr Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the Gujarat violence to take place.

The second part of the documentary released on Tuesday “examines the track record of Narendra Modi’s government following his re-election in 2019,” according to the description on the BBC website.

The riots in February 2002 killed over 1,000 people – most of them Muslims – while Mr Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state.

The violence erupted a day after 59 people, many of them volunteers for Hindu organisations, died on the Sabarmati Express train when their coach was set on fire at Gujarat’s Godhra station.

The Foreign Office report was part of an inquiry ordered by the then-foreign secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Modi has denied accusations of any wrongdoing. Suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots led the US, UK and EU to deny him a visa at the time, a move that has since been reversed.

Last year, a special investigation team appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the role Mr Modi and other members of his party played in the violence said they found no evidence to prosecute him.

India’s foreign ministry last week called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particularly discredited narrative” that lacks objectivity and slammed it for “bias” and “a continuing colonial mindset.”

The BBC in a statement said the documentary was “rigorously researched” and involved a wide range of voices and opinions.

“We offered the Indian government a right to reply to the matters raised in the series — it declined to respond,” the statement said.

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