Hyderabad: Over the past week, amid a politically charged atmosphere owing to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), many activists have complained of police departments blocking them on Twitter. But should government departments (or officials) block people on social media? Is this a ‘free speech’ issue? Unfortunately, there has been very little discussion on this matter so far, at least in India.
A few days ago, Md. Asif Khan, an activist based in Mumbai, started sharing videos and photos of police brutality in UP on Twitter. On Saturday, he learnt that he was blocked by the police departments of Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Agra on Twitter.
Interestingly, Khan said he didn’t even tag these three accounts on any of his posts. “I have been uploading videos of police brutality. Under one of these tweets, UP police’s Twitter handle replied to me. Even in this tweet, these three departments weren’t tag-ged. It is possible they have been monitoring me for a long time,” he said. The UP police also seem to be using Twitter to intimidate users critical of them. Khan added that he was worried about his safety.
Govt has no power to block accounts
“A few days ago, an official handle of the UP government replied to my tweet, asking me to share my phone number. I didn't reply to them. The next day, the tweet was deleted. We are all aware of UP police arresting activists. They may come after me, even though I am in Mumbai,” he said.
Khan reported that he was blocked by the Mumbai police. However a few months ago they unblocked him. Khan points out that this is not right. “Government accounts should not block citizens. If I can't report to them by blocking me, they are denying me the right to file a report," he said.
Shahnawaz, another activist from UP, reported that he was blocked by the same police departments as Mr Khan was.
“On Saturday morning, many of my friends told me Meerut police had blocked them on Twitter. When I logged into my account, I learnt that I had been too. It is very disturbing. You can see my history. I never tweeted against the UP police in any way. I have only spoken against CAA.”
He too felt slighted by the government. “I am a responsible citizen and I have the right to question the government. By not allowing me to ask them questions directly, they (police) are going against the Constitution,” he said.
There is indeed a paucity of discussion on government officials blocking users on social media in India. However, it has been discussed in detail in democracies such as the USA. In July this year, for instance, a federal court in that country ruled that its President, Donald Trump, could not block Twitter users who were mocking or abusing him.
Trump was found to have violated the American constitution. This judgement gave rise to a slew of debates around the subject, many of which are ongoing.
In India, there is much confusion about this.
Almost all Indian politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have blocked people from their Twitter accounts. Activists, apart from calling it a curtailment of their freedom of speech, generally quote Article 350 of the Constitution, which talks about a citizen's right to submit representation to any officer or authority of the union or a state in any language used in the country. The article, however, mostly pertains to the use and preservation of languages in the country. Legal experts have largely ignored the matter.
Hyderabad-based advocate P. Vishnuvardhan Reddy, a former assistant solicitor general of India and a member of the Bar Council of India, said government departments do not have the power to block Twitter accounts directly. “Only a designated authority, as per provisions listed under the Telegraph Act and clauses related to cable TV telecast, can block the Twitter accounts of people. All departments don't have this authority. This is nothing but an infringement of the right guaranteed under Article 19,” he said.
Reddy said that though the right to free speech exists, like in any case, it is restricted by other articles of the Constitution, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
“Hence, before blocking a Twitter account, the government should be satisfied that it is harmful to the maintenance of law and order and communal harmony,” he said....