This article is written by Supriya Gill, pursuing a Diploma in Advanced Contract Drafting, Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from LawSikho and edited by Shashwat Kaushik.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
Table of Contents
This is a comprehensive article that deals with an analysis of the banning of the BBC documentary by the Indian government, invoking emergency laws. We will discuss the reasons for the ban, its impact on freedom of expression in India, the Gujarat riots, and the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question.
A BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India: The Modi Question was banned in January 2023 by the Indian government. The BBC documentary was mainly about PM Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots in 2002. Such a ban by the government brought criticism from various journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians who openly condemned such action by the government and called it censorship and suppression of freedom of expression.
The reasons given by the government for such a ban are inaccuracy and bias in the documentary and spreading misinformation about Prime Minister Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots. The BBC took the defence and claimed the documentary to be well-researched and balanced.
Such a ban on the BBC documentary can be understood as a move by the government to restrict freedom of expression in India. Besides this ban, in recent times there have been more laws passed by the government that are widely criticised for stifling dissent, such as the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which was criticised for discrimination against Muslims, and the 2021 IT Rules, which provide the government with enormous powers to censor online content.
The 2002 Gujarat riots
The 2002 Gujarat riots were inter-communal violence that continued for three days in Gujarat. The reason behind the riots was the burning of a train in Godhra, Gujarat, carrying Hindu pilgrims, leading to the deaths of 58 Hindus returning from Ayodhya. The riots resulted in the deaths of around 1000 people, and approximately 150,000 people were displaced.
When riots took place in Gujarat, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. As the then CM, Modi faced many accusations of not acting diligently to control the violence. Even police and government officials faced such accusations.
In 2012, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) was appointed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, and it concluded that there was no involvement of Narendra Modi in the riots. However, it was alleged in 2013 that the SIT had hidden the facts. Followingly, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in April 2014 was satisfied with the investigation conducted by the SIT relating to nine violence cases and even rejected pleas claiming the SIT report to be baseless.
The BBC documentary
The BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, was made by BBC Two and is about the involvement of PM Narendra Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots. It is a two-part documentary that emphasises Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat violence as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and all the allegations that were made against him for his failure to control the violence and also for sparking the riots.
What are the allegations made in the documentary
There are a number of allegations made in the documentary against Prime Minister Modi during the 2002 Gujarat riots, which form the content of the first part of the documentary. The second part of the documentary is mainly about the administration of Modi’s government after his 2019 re-election. It emphasises controversial laws that were criticised and even resulted in the 2020 Delhi riots, such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
The documentary has featured some interviews with survivors of the riots, lawyers, journalists, and politicians, footage from the riots, and speeches delivered by the then CM of Gujarat, Modi, at the time.
Some of the allegations made in the documentary are:
- The then CM, Modi, deliberately refrained from taking action to stop the Gujarat riots.
- He was involved in sparking and inciting violence, which resulted in 1,000 deaths.
- He was involved with other officials to cover up the riots.
- He has used the privilege of his status as Prime Minister to further his Hindu nationalist agenda.
All the allegations made in the documentary have been denied by the Indian government and the supporters of Modi. The government claimed that the documentary was inaccurate, biassed, and based on misinformation.
The government’s response
The BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, was banned by the government invoking the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which are a set of guidelines to regulate content on the internet. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered Twitter and YouTube to delete any posts sharing links to the BBC documentary.
The documentary was banned under Rule 16 of the rules, which deals with blocking information in case of emergency. Using this rule, the Indian government asked YouTube and Twitter to take down links to the BBC documentary. The government denied all the allegations made in the documentary and claimed that it was biassed and lacked objectivity. The government said that it was based on misinformation about Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
What did the government say about the documentary
The government has straightforwardly denied all the allegations made in the documentary, which depicted PM Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat riots. The government further accused the BBC of being biassed against PM Modi and said that the BBC has a colonial mindset.
However, many journalists and human rights activists criticised the actions taken by the government and called them censorship and a move by the government to curb the criticism of Modi. Such a ban on the documentary raises questions about the future of freedom of expression in India.
Why did the government ban the documentary
The Government of India has not given any official statement yet concerning the reasons for blocking the BBC documentary. These reasons are based on media reports and the government’s track record of blocking critical content.
Banning the BBC documentary could be due to the following reasons:
- The documentary could incite communal violence in the nation. The documentary can be a reason to re-spark the Hindu-Muslim tensions, which could lead to further violence.
- The other reason could be that the documentary is biassed and inaccurate. The facts on which the documentary is based are vague and based on misinformation.
What are the implications of the ban
There are certain implications for freedom of expression in India from the ban on the BBC documentary by the government.
- The ban on the documentary is described as a move to curb freedom of expression in India by many journalists. This could create questions in the minds of journalists, filmmakers, or critics of the government while speaking out against the government for fear of being censored.
- Such action by the government could harm India’s democratic reputation.
Laws invoked by the government to ban the BBC documentary
The government banned the BBC documentary on Modi’s role in the 2002 Guajart riots, invoked emergency laws of the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, Section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000, and issued restraining orders from the Court.
The laws invoked by the government to ban the BBC documentary in India are discussed below:
IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021
The Central Government of India, along with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), introduced a set of guidelines to regulate content on the Internet, called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
India: The Modi Question was banned by the Indian government invoking Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which is the provision about blocking information in case of emergency.
The government used this rule to ask YouTube and Twitter to take down links to the BBC documentary. The government argued that the documentary lacked objectivity and showed a continued colonial mindset.
Rule 16 has given power to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to invoke emergency powers to disable or block content from the internet. It lays down the Union Government’s power to block information in case of an emergency. It allows the government to order the immediate removal of content in the interest of India’s sovereignty, security, and friendly relations with other countries and to maintain law and order.
The rule says that in case of an emergency where no delay is acceptable, the Ministry’s Secretary may, as an interim measure, issue directives to identifiable persons, publishers, and intermediaries to block public access to certain content upon satisfaction that it is necessary, expedient, or justifiable to do so. While doing so, the Ministry can block the content without providing the intermediary with an opportunity to be heard.
Section 69A of the Information Technology Act
Section 69A of the Information Technology Act is a provision under which the government can issue directions to block public access to any information that could be a threat to a country’s sovereignty, integrity, security, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order.
What are the challenges to freedom of expression in India
The Constitution of India guarantees some fundamental rights. And freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights. But there are some challenges to this fundamental right.
Censorship: The government has a long list of censoring media that criticise the government. This censorship can take many forms, including banning books, films, and websites, withdrawing newspaper licences, and arresting journalists. For example: In 1988, the Indian government banned the book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie as it was seen to be critical of the Indian government; the film Fire by Deepa Mehta was banned in 1998 due to being offensive to Hindu sensibilities; and in 1975, during an emergency, the licence of the renowned newspaper The Hindu was withdrawn by the government.
Self-censorship: Self-censorship i.e., refraining from writing about a certain topic or expressing a viewpoint due to fear of reprisal, is practised by many journalists or writers. The reason behind self-censorship can be putting up censors by the government or the avoidance of controversies.
Social media abuse: In the era of digitalization, social media serves as a major platform for the spread of misinformation in India. This can hinder people from accessing accurate information and contribute to social unrest.
The recent decision of the Indian government to ban the BBC documentary in India is likely to give rise to worrying developments in the future of freedom of expression in India. The ban signifies the government’s willingness to silence dissent.
The decision to ban the BBC documentary has been criticised by journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians. They made accusations against the government for censoring and moving to silence criticism of PM Modi. The ban was also condemned by the international community.
Such a ban shows the government’s willingness to suppress criticism of it. It is necessary to defend freedom of expression. And in the long run, such a ban could have a negative impact on the democratic reputation of the country. Steps should be taken to protect freedom of expression in India.
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