The Narendra Modi government on Wednesday denied a Right to Information request seeking details of a notice sent to Twitter, asking the social media company to block over 50 posts critical of the Centre’s handling of the devastating second wave of the pandemic, The Hindu reported.
The government cited national security concerns to not reveal details of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s April 23 notice to Twitter. A day later, 52 tweets were taken down from the platform following orders from the government. The Centre claimed they were spreading fake news, but majority of these tweets were critical of its handling of the health crisis as the second wave in India led to states grappling with shortages of hospital beds, oxygen, medicines and vaccines.
Posts by Congress leaders Pawan Khera, Revanth Reddy, West Bengal minister Moloy Ghatak, actor Vineet Kumar Singh, filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das were among those blocked.
Bihar-based RTI activist Kanhaiya Kumar sought to know the legal provisions under which the action was taken. Replying to him on Wednesday, the government said Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2009, has provision allowing information to be blocked from public access if it harmed the country’s sovereignty, integrity, defence, security, foreign affairs or public order.
In his RTI request, Kumar asked for a copy of the legal notice sent to Twitter and details of the Twitter handles and specific posts against which action was taken. He also wanted a copy of the all correspondence between the social media company and the government in this matter. Additionally, the activist asked if the government had sent a similar notice to other platforms for blocking posts.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology refused to answer any of his queries, citing that Section 69A of the IT Act and its matters “are related to National Security, sovereignty and integrity” of the country, it attracted the provisions of Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, according to The Hindu. This specific clause allows for the exemption of information disclosure pertaining to national security.
The ministry also stated that under the rules of the IT Act, “strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof”.
The response comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have been sparring about the “toolkit” controversy. It started after BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted on May 18 with the allegation that the Congress had created a “toolkit” or campaign material to tarnish the reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the central government in connection with the management of the coronavirus crisis.
However, Twitter later classified Patra’s post as “manipulated media”. But days later, the Delhi Police carried out searches at the offices of Twitter in Lado Sarai in south Delhi and Gurugram in connection with the matter.
The Congress filed first information reports against Patra in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the party is in power. It had also informed the police that the “toolkit” was fake. Fact-checking website AltNews also found that the document was created on a fake Congress letterhead.