In the first week of April, the Indian government announced its solution to fake news on the internet. Its own fact-checking unit will determine what’s true and what’s misleading on anything that touches on the business of the state. Under changes to the country’s information technology rules, the government’s fact-checking unit will soon be able to force publishers and social media platforms to take down content, with potentially huge implications for tech companies.
But the legal challenge to the changes hasn’t come from Big Tech, or from media outlets worried about their ability to hold the government accountable. It’s come from a comedian.
On April 11, 2023, comedian Kunal Kamra filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the amendments to the IT rules on the basis that they would allow the government to shut down critical voices—something it has already demonstrated a willingness to do.
“Who is this law being brought in for?” Kamra says. “In the past few years, we have seen several social media accounts suspended or blocked that were inconvenient to the government. These amendments would just pave the way for more of that behavior.”
Kamra, a political satirist and regular critic of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has 2.3 million followers on Twitter and 2.05 million subscribers on YouTube.
Kamra’s open criticism of the Indian authorities has often gotten him into trouble. In November 2020, he launched a scathing attack on India’s top court after it granted bail to a pro-government TV anchor who was arrested after being charged with abetment to suicide, while several human rights activists had been languishing in jail for years. On Twitter, he called the judge a “flight attendant serving champagne to first class passengers after they’re fast tracked through, while commoners don’t know if they’ll ever be boarded or seated, let alone served.” He described the Supreme Court of India as “the supreme joke” of India.
The Supreme Court responded by charging him with contempt, but he refused to apologize, saying in an affidavit: “The suggestion that my tweets could shake the foundation of the most powerful court in the world is an overestimation of my abilities.”
As a comedian, Kamra’s work is at risk from the new rules. Other comics have been targeted because of their work. In February 2021, Munawar Faruqui was arrested in Madhya Pradesh for a joke he’d told more than a year before, after a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party accused him of harming religious sentiments.
Kamra points out that the rules could easily be used against satire on the internet. In March, he tweeted a picture of Prime Minister Modi delivering a speech in parliament with several lawmakers listening. The face of billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani had been photoshopped onto all of the lawmakers. Adani has been accused of benefiting from his proximity to Modi.
“Comedy is about satire and a bit of exaggeration,” Kamra says. “But with the new IT rules, I stand the risk of being deplatformed retrospectively by finding three things I said satirically, claiming them to be fake.”
But he adds that his legal challenge isn’t about him. “This is bigger than any one profession. It will affect everyone,” he says.
He points to wide discrepancies between the official account of Covid’s impact on the country and the assessment of international agencies. “The WHO has said that Covid deaths in India were about 10 times more than the official count. Anybody even referring to that could be labeled a fake news peddler, and it would have to be taken down.”
In April 2021, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, was ravaged by a second wave of Covid-19 and a severe shortage of oxygen in hospitals. The state government denied there was a problem. Amidst this unfolding crisis, one man tweeted an SOS call for oxygen to save his dying grandfather. The authorities in the state charged him with rumor-mongering and causing panic.
Experts believe the amendments to India’s IT rules would enable more of this kind of repression, under a government that has already extended its powers over the internet, forcing social media platforms to remove critical voices and using emergency powers to censor a BBC documentary critical of Modi.
Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a digital liberties organization, says the social media team of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has itself freely spread misinformation about political opponents and critics, while “reporters going to the ground and bringing out the inconvenient truth have faced consequences.”
Waghre says the lack of clarity on what constitutes fake news makes matters even worse. “Looking at the same data set, it is possible that two people can arrive at different conclusions,” he adds. “Just because your interpretation of that data set is different to that of the government’s doesn’t make it fake news. If the government is putting itself in a position to fact-check information about itself, the first likely misuse of it would be against information that is inconvenient to the government.”
This is not a hypothetical scenario. In September 2019, a journalist was booked by police for allegedly trying to defame the government after recording schoolchildren who were supposed to be receiving full meals from the state eating just salt and roti.
In November 2021, two journalists, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, were arrested for reporting on anti-Muslim violence that had erupted in the northeastern state of Tripura. They were accused of reporting “fake news.”
Nonbinding, state-backed fact-checks already happen through the government’s Press Information Bureau, despite that organization’s checkered record on objectivity.
Media watch website newslaundry.com compiled a number of PIB’s “fact-checks” and found that the Bureau simply labels inconvenient reports as “false” or “baseless” without providing any concrete proof.
In June 2022, Tapasya, a reporter for investigative journalism organization The Reporters’ Collective, wrote that the Indian government required children aged six and under to get an Aadhar biometric identification card in order to access food at government-run centers—in defiance of an Indian Supreme Court ruling.
The PIB Fact Check quickly labeled the story fake. When Tapasya inquired under the Right To Information Act (a freedom of information law) about the procedure behind the labeling, PIB simply attached a tweet from the Woman and Child Development ministry, which claimed the story was fake—in other words, the PIB Fact Check had not done any independent research.
“Parroting the government line isn’t fact-checking,” Tapasya says. “The government could have gotten my story taken down on the internet if the new IT rules were in play in June 2022.”
Social media companies have sometimes pushed back against the Indian government’s attempts to impose controls over what can be published online. But the IFF’s Waghre doesn’t expect them to put up much of a fight this time. “Nobody wants litigation, nobody wants to risk their safe harbor,” he says, referring to the “safe harbor” rules that protect platforms from being held liable for content posted by their users. “There is likely to be mechanical compliance, and possibly even proactive censorship of views that they know are likely to be flagged.”
Kamra didn’t want to comment on his prospects in challenging the new rules. But he says a democracy’s health is in question when the government wants to control the sources of information. “This isn’t what democracy looks like,” he says. “There are several problems with social media. It has been harmful in the past. But more government control isn’t the solution to it.”
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Lily Hay Newman
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