KARACHI: Twitter has blocked nearly a million tweets from accounts that focus on Kashmir at the behest of the Indian government, according to an investigation carried out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to the report published on Friday by the CPJ — an independent organisation working to promote press freedom worldwide — hundreds of thousands of tweets blocked in India since August 2017 under the Twitter’s country withheld content policy were shared by accounts that focus on Kashmir.

Read: Is Twitter aiding India’s quest to silence Kashmiris?

The CPJ retrieved requests sent by Indian authorities to Twitter between August 2017 and August this year from Lumen, an open database.

The CPJ found 53 letters sent by Indian government to Twitter that asked it to block all, or part of, 400 accounts during the period. Around 45 per cent of those accounts mentioned Kashmir in the handle or bio, or had recently tweeted about Kashmir, according to CPJ’s review. Thirteen of the 53 requests listing several hundred URLs were sent by the Indian election commission around the 2019 general election. The remaining 40 were sent by the Indian Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology.

In August this year alone, nine legal requests were sent to Twitter specifying 20 accounts and 24 tweets when the communications blackout in occupied Kashmir began — a considerable spike from the preceding months.

Ninety-three of the 400 accounts were withheld in India when CPJ tested them in September and October.

The vast majority (90pc) of the withheld accounts were from the group that referenced Kashmir, hosting over 920,000 tweets between them, the CPJ found.

It is pertinent to mention that the actual number of demands, tweets and accounts may be much higher as CPJ was able to retrieve requests publicly available in Lumen.

Requests retrieved from Lumen that originated with the Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology all cited Section 69A of India’s Information Techno­logy Act, which authorises government agencies to dir­ect intermediaries like Twi­tter to block or remove online content on a range of grounds like security and public order.

The CPJ also made public a spreadsheet containing the data analysed. The database shows that many journalists were caught up in the dragnet. In August 2019, of the 20 accounts specified, at least five belonged to journalists and bloggers — including Pakistani defence journalist Kamran Yousuf.

Twitter, however, did not act on every request; several URLs remained accessible despite being cited.

Twitter’s compliance with these requests has increased significantly since mid-2017, according to a CPJ review of the company’s transparency reports for India. The company complied with only one request to withhold an entire account between December 2012 and June 2017, though it was asked to withhold more than 900, CPJ’s comparison of those reports revealed.

From then until December 2018, however, the number of accounts specified in requests surged to 4,722. Twitter agreed to block 131 of them.

The CPJ interviewed several affected users, including writer Ahmed bin Qasim who was born in India-held Kashmir, but now lives in Pakistan.

A legal request cited Bin Qasim’s Twitter account for breaking Indian law on Jan 3, 2019. “My own people don’t have access to my account,” Bin Qasim told CPJ in October.

“The increase in legal demands to remove content on Twitter shows that India is widening its dragnet of censorship beyond the borders of Jammu and Kashmir in its efforts to control the narrative around Kashmir and Twitter’s compliance means that there are even fewer spaces for discourse in the region,” CPJ’s Senior Asia Researcher Aliya Iftikhar said while talking to Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2019

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