Twitter said Wednesday it will not restrict accounts belonging to Indian journalists, activists and politicians, in defiance of an order issued by the country’s government, setting up a potentially fraught legal battle with the Narendra Modi-led government which has threatened to jail the company’s executives if they fail to comply.
In a blog post, the company said it has taken action against 500 accounts and reduced visibility of several hashtags in India to comply with multiple orders from the Indian government’s IT ministry.
But the social media giant has decided to not block any accounts belonging to news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians as the company argues doing so would violate their fundamental right to free speech under the Indian constitution.
The announcement comes after Twitter’s recent reversal of its decision to restrict 250 accounts in the country, including those of investigative news outlet Caravan and several critics of the Modi government who had tweeted in support of large scale protests by farmers across the country against New Delhi’s new agricultural reforms.
The accounts had been blocked in compliance with a notice from India’s IT ministry and after the reversal the ministry sent another notice ordering the platform to block the accounts once again and threatened the company’s regional executives with legal consequences that could include jail time for failing to comply.
In its blog post, Twitter said it believes the decision to restore the accounts was consistent with Indian law despite orders from the government to block them.
“Upon the request of Twitter seeking a meeting with the Govt., the Secretary IT was to engage with senior management of Twitter. In this light a blog post published prior to this engagement is unusual. Govt. will share its response soon.” The IT ministry responded in a statement on local micro-blogging platform Koo.
Twitter has emerged at the center of a firestorm in India as the social media platform has been used by the celebrities, activists, independent journalists and opposition politicians to criticize the government on both the new farm laws and its heavy handed use of police and paramilitary forces to subdue protests against it. The platform has come under criticism from liberal voices and those who oppose the government, for its failure to tackle hateful content and threats of violence against the protestors and those who support them. The government has attempted to crack down on several Twitter accounts and hashtags as it alleged they pose a threat to public order and spread misinformation about the new laws.
Twitter was the home turf of another controversy relating to the farmer protests earlier this month after singer Rihanna shared a news report about the protests, asking: “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest.” The protesting farmers also received support from Meena Harris—author and niece of the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris—climate activist Greta Thunberg and several other celebrities. This prompted an immediate reaction from the Indian foreign ministry which slammed the “celebrities and others” for their comments on the farmers protests, calling them “neither accurate nor responsible.”