When asked about Twitter’s functioning in India, Elon Musk claims ignorance regarding the Indian government’s requests to remove content related to Narendra Modi’s leadership and the 2002 Gujarat riots. Despite being a “free speech absolutist,” Musk seems to surrender easily to government complaints.
T he world’s media has thoroughly picked apart the roughly 90-minute conversation suddenly granted by Elon Musk to the BBC’s James Clayton, but an interesting insight on Narendra Modi’s India seems to have been barely noted.
At 38.40 on this Twitter Space link, the journo asks about Twitter’s functioning in India. The BBC, said Mr Clayton, had done a documentary on Mr Modi’s leadership and the 2002 Gujarat riots. “Some of the content was taken off Twitter. Was that at the behest of the Indian government?”
Mr Musk replied in tones of sweet reasonableness: “I’m not aware of that…”. He then went on to say that “the rules in India, what can appear on social media are quite strict and we can’t go beyond the laws of a country.”
It’s still hard to understand why Twitter would block several Canada-based journalists, politicians and activists last month, reportedly because the Indian government wanted this? The 120 blocked accounts include a lot of Canadian Sikhs, including opposition politician Jagmeet Singh, who was denied an Indian visa a decade ago for raising the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots; poet Rupi Kaur and Jaskaran Sandhu, the Toronto-based co-founder of Baaz News. Briefly, the handle of the BBC’s Punjabi language bureau was also blocked.
Twitter blocked access to accounts in India
According to a Sikh organization, Twitter blocked several high-profile Canadian accounts, including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and poet Rupi Kaur, from internet users in India at the request of India’s government. The government has shut down the internet in Punjab state as they seeked to apprehend Amritpal Singh. Twitter received a legal removal demand from the Government of India regarding these accounts, claiming that their content violates India’s Information Technology Act.
It’s worth keeping all of this in context. Twitter is a commercial organisation, and India is its third largest market after the US and Japan.
Though Mr Musk has previously said he is a “free speech absolutist”, he seemed to metaphorically raise his hands in surrender when faced with complaints about Twitter’s week-kneed response to Indian government demands. He tweeted: “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”
First I’ve heard. It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 25, 2023
As I said before, India is Twitter’s third-largest market, so it is all about the money. But that’s a matter of some concern as Musk-owned Twitter has a tendency to re-label and mislabel media outlets. It did this with the BBC and now with NPR. If Mr Musk’s Twitter is more worried about its bottom line (and it’s a business, after all) it’s worth thinking about why it should mislabel these international media outlets as “state-affiliated”, “government-funded” etc.
Until recently, Twitter’s guidelines said, “State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy.” That language has been removed. Twitter also recently labeled the US broadcaster Voice of America (VOA) as government-funded media. Though VOA is part of the federal US Agency for Global Media, its editorial independence from the government is hard-won and enshrined by law.
See below for the comment issued by the Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am a member. It’s the oldest organisation representing journalists in the United States.
[Postscript: Mr Musk’s Twitter seems to be doing something right with Twitter Space. Bloomberg recently put out a Twitter Space discussion on President Joe Biden’s trip to Ireland. Is Twitter Space set to become a cross between TikTok, Facebook Live and podcasting?]
Comment from the SPJ:
Twitter versus NPR
“First Twitter categorized the US National Public Radio network as “state-affiliated media.” That put the private and independent news organization in the same group as the People’s Daily from China and RT from Russia.
“Unfortunately for Twitter, this description does not match with Twitter’s own rules for “state-affiliated media”: “State-affiliated media is defined as outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” In no way does the US government exercise control over NPR content.
“After a while, Twitter backed off and labeled NPR as “Government Funded Media.” Unfortunately, there is no formal definition of what “government-funded” means on the Twitter information page. Even the BBC objects to the “government-funded” designation. They claim they operate on license fees from the British public, not the government. They also stress they have absolute editorial independence from any government body.
“NPR said April 12 it would no longer post fresh content to Twitter because of the Twitter designation. According to an NPR story about the decision NPR CEO John Lansing wrote to the staff explaining the decision, “It would be a disservice to the serious work you all do here to continue to share it on a platform that is associating the federal charter for public media with an abandoning of editorial independence or standards.”
“This is an International Community issue because NPR has a strong and growing international reporting presence. (By its latest count, NPR has 18 international bureaus.) By mislabeling the organization, Twitter has put in jeopardy the lives and freedom of hundreds of NPR reporters and editors around world. There are many places that would love to close down independent journalism — or worse. (China and Russia come quickly to mind.) These dictators and wanna-be dictators — can use the Twitter designation as an excuse to “protect” their national interests from US government interference by arresting or expelling the NPR teams.
“We have already seen how Russia reacts to the foreign asking questions. Evan Gershkovich remains behind bars under charges of espionage when he was only “doing journalism.” So, we should be concerned when a major corporation such as Twitter begins identifying independent journalists as government agents.”
— AUTHOR —
▫ Rashmee Roshan Lall, Journalist by trade & inclination. World affairs columnist.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Medium and re-published in PMP Magazine on 17 April 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Bing. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)