India: Stop repression of media and political opposition during elections

India: Stop repression of media and political opposition during elections - Media

Polling station, Mysuru, Karnataka, India, April 2024. Photo: Priya Darshan / Shutterstock

ARTICLE 19 and 9 partner organisations express deep concern over recent actions taken by India’s central government against, among others, journalists, political opposition, and media outlets in the lead-up to and during the general elections in India. We also raise alarm over rising instances of inciting speech intended to sow hatred against the Muslim population and other religious minorities in India.

As the election process continues, we urge the Indian authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of expression and to protect the right to equality and non-discrimination. We also call on tech companies, including social media companies, to resist government censorship and to ensure that their recommender systems and content moderation practices promote access to diverse viewpoints and uphold free expression.

The undersigned – comprising civil society and human rights organisations – express deep concern over the repression of media and political opposition in the lead-up to and during the general elections in India, the world’s biggest direct elections, with almost a billion voters heading to the polls from 19 April to 1 June 2024.

We are concerned by three concomitant trends:

First, the central government authorities have been actively muzzling journalists, independent media and political opposition. In February, the government ordered X, Facebook, and Instagram to block hundreds of activists’ social media accounts and posts in the run-up to the elections. There has been a lack of transparency around these decisions and no avenue for legal remedy. Just days before the elections started, in early April, the central government also ordered YouTube to block channels of independent media houses National Dastak and Bolta Hindustan.

Second, a number of heavy-handed law enforcement actions in the lead-up to and during the election period, particularly by the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department, indicate a clear pattern of targeting political opposition in a gross abuse of power. In the last few months, the sitting chief minister of Delhi and the former chief minister of Jharkhand were arrested on corruption and money laundering charges – with little possibility of bail. The bank accounts of the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), were frozen by the Income Tax Department for alleged failures dating back as far as 1994. Two other parties in political opposition have been targeted with what appear to be disproportionate million-dollar fines for failures to declare bank accounts and other administrative failures. These developments are weakening opposition forces at a critical juncture and seriously threaten the prospect of free and fair elections in India.

Third, we are concerned by rising instances of speech by political leaders intended to sow hatred against the Muslim population and other religious minorities in India. For example, in a recent speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed the Muslim population in India as ‘infiltrators’ who have ‘lots of children’. Modi’s party, Bharatiya Janata Party, repeated a similar narrative in a post on Instagram.

We call on:

  • The Indian government to desist from issuing any censorship and content-blocking orders targeting journalists, activists and political opposition. The Indian government must fulfil its obligations under the Constitution of India and international human rights instruments, guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of the press.
  • The Indian authorities, including the Election Commission of India, to protect the right to equality and non-discrimination and address instances of inciting speech in political campaigning for the elections in full compliance with the principles of legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality under international freedom of expression standards. The Election Commission should also promote compliance with the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance for Political Parties and Candidates.
  • Politicians and other leadership figures in society to avoid making statements that might promote discrimination or undermine equality, and to take advantage of their positions to promote intercultural understanding, including by contesting, where appropriate, discriminatory statements or behaviour.
  • Technology and social media companies to resist content blocking orders that are overbroad or otherwise infringe on constitutionally-protected speech, and to challenge the orders in a court of law. Social media companies should also ensure that their recommender systems promote access to diverse viewpoints, and increase their capacity for content moderation in South Asian languages. They must ensure that their content moderation policies and practices are in line with relevant international standards on freedom of expression and hate speech.

Signed by:

Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice
Center for Democracy & Technology
Foundation The London Story
Hindus for Human Rights
Hindus for Human Rights UK
Homo Digitalis
India Civil Watch International
South Asia Solidarity Group
Tech Justice Law Project