The aftermath of the release of a BBC documentary on the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, which questions the actions taken by the then Gujarat government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, can only be termed as yet another rendition of the ‘Streisand effect’. After issuing directions to disable access to the first episode on websites using emergency powers under the IT Rules, 2021 and Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) also blocked over 50 tweets with a link to the documentary. But this only resulted in citizens gaining access through screenings and shares over smartphones — akin to how the suppression of information has the unintended consequences of raising more awareness, or the ‘Streisand effect’. Other actions such as the police detention of 13 students at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, on the pretext that they were about to have a screening were an overkill and amounted to an abuse of power. It goes without saying that the government should not arbitrarily block the dissemination of media content just because it is critical of the regime. Its justification to use emergency powers to block access to the documentary, as being propagandist and of a colonial mindset, does not hold water if it is seen in the continuum of coverage of the pogrom and the aftermath. In any case, propaganda should be countered by propaganda, and not censorship.
The events that led to the pogrom, the horrific crimes, the callousness of the then regime and the lack of sufficient recourse to law and order steps, have all been well recorded and commented upon in the Indian press. The BBC documentary is just another media investigation into a portion of India’s history that changed the course of the polity not just in Gujarat but also elsewhere. The online blocking of the first episode using emergency powers cannot be justified on the basis provided by the MIB that it is “propagandist”, and only reflects a recent tendency to utilise IT rules to assert executive power rather than address this as a free speech issue. The IT rules were amended in February 2021 to allow for increased government control over online news publications — actions that are now being heard in courts. Recent High Court orders have also weighed in on the need to protect free speech and have stayed the government’s moves to control freedom of expression on digital platforms. In its actions, a clear case can be made that the central government is more keen on blocking critical content than using the IT rules to regulate hate speech and misinformation — the true bane of the digital media ecosystem today.
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