When BJP spokesperson, Gopal Krishna Agarwal asked by a BBC journalist regarding why their government is blocking tweets that criticize the government, he answered that social media platforms should obey when the government has laid some rules. Criticizing the government in the times of pandemic, according to him, was based on false narratives and mostly originating from outside the country. He clearly failed to realize that some of those tweets were made by Indian lawmakers and citizens of the country. In the world where the information is abundant and surging from every corner and every mind, it is difficult to assess its validity. In order to curb the misinformation campaigns, India definitely needs a strict internet monitoring institution. There are numerous groups that publish misinformation. Such accounts should be taken down from the social media platforms and people responsible must be strictly punished. However, such powers should not be misused. If criticizing the government on its ineffective measures is not appropriate, under reporting of the COVID cases by the government is also inappropriate.
Factly, a Hyderabad based media research firm, has reported huge mismatches between the government data and the ground reality of COVID infections. It is disturbing to see that the wrong reports are being shown by the government regarding the COVID cases and deaths. It is alleged that government purposely under represents the COVID data. It is clear that the problem of misinformation is real, and stringent rules are necessary to maintain peace within the society. However, it should be applicable for all the misinformers including the government. There should not be a differential treatment. But, in the largest democracy, it appears that democracy is being used as a façade to create an authoritarian state. Social Scientist, Arundhati Roy, who is well known for her rationale and courageous critique on the government has voiced strongly against the ruling BJP government at the center. Her article published in The Wire depicts the irony of the way government is handling the pandemic.
It is very sad to see electoral democracies tend to move backwards from their democratization process and become autocracies during the pandemic. A Sweden based institute, V-Dem has categorized India to be an electoral autocracy in its recent 2021 report. India is opined to be among the countries which are leading the third wave of democratization. According to V-Dem, the government censorship of the media, repression of civil society organizations and the absence of autonomy of the Election Commission of India are the reasons for the sharp decline in the ranking. When the second wave of COVID-19 was reaching its peak, the election commission did not heed to the high courts, public, opposition parties and continued with the elections along with the regular permission to the political campaigning. Public opinion and health concerns have been side-lined preferring the elections and power game of the parties. A detailed article citing the failures of India in protecting the freedom of speech are highlighted here.
If the incidents of pandemic alone are quoted, it could be inferred as a temporary measures during the unprecedented times. However, the attitude of government appears to be inclined towards becoming authoritative in some sense. To understand the attitude of the government to the internet freedom and free communication, let us take another case, Jammu & Kashmir government (Union territory of India) stated that the right to access the internet is not a fundamental right. This statement was issued by the principal secretary to the government, and it was also stated that communications, transactions, commerce, over the internet cannot be considered under the fundamental right — “Right to freedom of expression.” It is a great irony that communication and communication platforms are being separated by a government official. Under what circumstances an individual can communicate freely if the platform to communicate is restricted?
There are other series of unacceptable decisions made by the current government. Two news channels Media One and Asianet News were banned for 48 hours in March 2020. They were broadcasting the Delhi Riots and it was the videos inciting communal riots. However, it is alleged that there were factual errors in the Information and Broadcasting ministry’s order. Moreover, reportage of the riots happening, and the statements used by the channels’ reporters nowhere appear to incite violence. Rather, they were showing the facts.
In the state of Telangana, the government purportedly reduces the total number of daily infections by 66%. When people are grappling for oxygen beds, Plasma, Ventilators, Telangana’s Chief Secretary, Somesh Kumar in his press conference says, that COVID is completely under control. The opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slammed the Chief Secretary on this irresponsible crisis management. Even the Telangana High Court found faults with the government’s narrative on the total number of deaths being reported.
In West Bengal, post elections, there were reports alleging TMC party workers perpetrating violence against the people who support BJP. However, most of the claims and allegations turned out to be the result of fake news. Even the leaders who have a blue tick mark on their account retweeted the fake videos. It seems all the political elites of the country have taken social media for granted and using it to achieve their selfish political goals. Be it the opposition or the ruling party.
The misrepresentation of data and unethical usage of social media by the state goes against the values of democracy. Ironically, this has increased in the times of pandemic. During these times of health emergency, the government should be proactive and work tirelessly to save the lives of the public. Information should be given out to public truthfully. However, it is not the sole responsibility of the government, even the public and opposition parties should adhere to the COVID norms and maintain strict protocols. When it comes to the government narratives, data transparency, and usage of social media to battle COVID, the government is held more accountable. Internet and social media should not be used freely so that it deepens the existing vagaries and vicissitudes of society. At the same time, it should not be used as a tool of the government to control the free speech of the citizens. It should not shut the voices which criticize the government for their inability. We have seen the incidents like J&K principal secretary’s comments, Central government banning Kerala News Channels, and Telangana’s outright misinformation of the COVID situation.
Though the state governments and central government are taking proactive measures and tirelessly working to contain the spread of COVID infections in the second wave of the pandemic, more transparent crisis management would instil courage to the nation. Transparency and accountability play a major role to uphold the values of democracy. If social media, internet are considered mere tools of the state to promote its propaganda, then India is no different to China. Democracy would just be a façade to autocracy. Today, V-Dem ranked India an electoral autocracy, I hope there will not come a time when it puts India under total autocracy. Though I believe in positive liberty, excessive and unwarranted restrictions on online speech will leads to illiberal democracy, as opined by Fareed Zakaria in his article of 1997 – “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.”
Arun Teja Polcumpally is currently a doctoral fellow at Jindal School of International Studies. He is a Research Assistant at Center for Security Studies (CSS) and Editor at Jindal Center for Global South. His area of research is the impact of digital technologies on the global power structure. He worked as research assistant at Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad in 2018 before becoming campaigning manager at Social Post Political Consultancy. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.