On August 5, India's BJP-led government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution that gave special autonomy status to the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir dividing it into two union territories – Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Fearing unrest, protests, and opposition, the authorities put hundreds of political leaders and their aides under house arrest and suspended access to mobile, landline and internet networks.
Urgent: Severe internet disruption registered in #Srinagar, #Kashmir with backbone access largely severed by India from 18:00 UTC; information blackout poses immediate risk to safety and rights of individuals; incident ongoing #KeepItOn
📰 https://t.co/ENx1iLc4nQ pic.twitter.com/jv0KMbp3CM
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) August 4, 2019
With the communication blackout inside Kashmir, netizens elsewhere resorted to Twitter to share the news. This has prompted the Indian government to go after some Twitter accounts it accused of spreading false news in relation to its controversial Kashmir move.
On August 12, local media reported that the Indian home ministry had asked Twitter to ”suspend” eight accounts for spreading ”misinformation and rumours to disturb peace and calm” in Kashmir. The government accused the accounts of “engaging in an anti-India campaign on Kashmir and Article 370” in violation of India's Information Technology Act. Section 69A of India's IT Act bans content deemed threatening to ”the security of the State, the sovereignty, integrity or defense of India”.
In fact, the Indian government and its supporters have been denouncing what little information is emerging about the situation in Kashmir as ”false” or as propaganda operations run by Pakistan's Spy Agency or its Army. India has long been accusing Pakistan of aiding militants to infiltrate Kashmir to conduct subversive activities. Pakistan responded to the revocation of Kashmir's autonomous status by suspending trade with India and downgrading ties with India.
For example, the BBC's coverage was questioned after it reported on August 9 that the police opened fire and used tear gas to disperse protesters in Soura, Srinagar. The Indian government said that the protest never took place and trolls took to Twitter to attack the BBC and accused it of spreading ”fake news”. While the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Jammu and Kashmir Police, and other security agencies have been warning Indian social media users not to believe in ”fake news” spread on social media.
The list of Twitter accounts targeted for removal includes the accounts of Islamabad based Kashmiri activist Madiha Shakil Khan (@Red4Kashmir), Pakistani journalist, writer and TV news anchorperson Arshad Sharif (@arsched), British freelance journalist Mary Scully (@mscully94), and Voice of Kashmir (@kashmir787), which is one of the accounts of Pakistan based citizen media site Our Voice Matter. In the aftermath of India's revocation of Article 370, these accounts have been tweeting to denounce Indian policies and practices in Kashmir and in support of the region's autonomy. Twitter took no actions against these accounts, and at the time of publication the four accounts were still accessible from India.
Twitter maintains a “country withheld” policy, under which the company may censor specific tweets or accounts in just one country, in response to a government order proving that the tweets are illegal under its local laws. Indian authorities repeatedly send removal requests to Twitter under this policy. According to the company's Transparency Report, in the second half of 2018, Twitter received 667 removal requests affecting 2,228 accounts from Indian authorities. The platform complied with 2 percent of those requests.
According to media reports, the four other Twitter accounts targeted for removal by the Indian government were @sageelaniii,@sadaf2k19, @RiazKha613 and @RiazKha723. The @sageelaniii account was tweeting under the name of Syed Ali Geelani, a Kashmiri separatist leader, although it was reported not to be his actual account. The accounts of @sageelaniii and @sadaf2k19 were suspended by Twitter for violating the platform's rules, although it was not clear which rule. A search for the account @RiazKha613 turned no results, while a search for @RiazKha723 showed an account that ”doesn't exist”.
When contacted by Outlook India, a news outlet, Twitter said that they do not comment on the deletion of individual accounts. According to a Twitter spokesperson:
We do not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons. Legal requests made to Twitter are published bi-annually in our Twitter Transparency Report.
As access to internet and phone networks remains suspended in Kashmir, Kashmiris elsewhere in the world and those supporting their struggle for autonomy, have continued to take Twitter and other social media platforms to express their solidarity. While the Indian government can request Twitter to censor accounts that violate its laws, it remains to be seen how many of those it will eventually be able to silence.
”There are still many powerful voices speaking out on Twitter & FB against Indian colonialism & occupation & #StandingWithKashmir”, Mary Scully, whose account is among the eight accounts targeted for removal, wrote on Facebook.