Activists See Irony in India Backing G-7 Statement on ‘Freedom of Expression’

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi

After Modi’s speech at G-7, opposition says he should practice what he preaches to the world

Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

NEW DELHI — India has signed a G-7 statement in support of “freedom of expression, both online and offline”, to safeguard democracy and the right of people to express freely.

While the statement underlines the threats posed by extremism and authoritarianism and names China and Russia, activists and journalists are pointing to irony in India’s stance on a global forum given that it comes at a time when the Modi government is cracking down on free speech; cases against journalists, jailing of activists, orders to social media companies to block critical content and new rules to regulate digital media.

Titled ‘open societies statement’ it also slammed internet shutdowns by governments as a threat to freedom and democracy terming them “politically motivated”. India is the global leader of internet shutdowns ranking at top with Pakistan at a distant second. Kashmir sees the majority of these shutdowns. While the authorities argue that these measures are enforced for law and order, activists say they are used to suppress the digital rights of people and curb peaceful protests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the lead speaker on the session ‘Building Back Together — Open Societies and Economies’ which culminated at ‘open societies statement’.

Modi, who addressed the meeting virtually in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, boasted about how “democracy and freedom were a part of India’s civilisational ethos” but underlined the “concern” that “open societies are particularly vulnerable to disinformation and cyber-attacks”. He urged the G-7 leaders to ensure “cyberspace remains an avenue for advancing democratic values and not of subverting it”.

The news of India signing the statement in support of freedom of expression evoked curt reactions from opposition, journalists, activists and academicians who posted their comments on social media.

Congress said that the prime minister should “practice what he If only Modi ji could practice in India what he preaches to the world”. The party underlined that India has the highest number of government-imposed internet shutdowns in the world. “So much for freedom of expression online,” Congress wrote in a tweet.

Mujib Mashal, the India correspondent of New York Times, said in a tweet that India signed the statement even as the Modi government “has an awful track record on internet shutdowns in recent years & is stuck in showdown with Twitter on critical content”, pointing to the recent faceoff between India government and social media giant Twitter over latter’s reservation on the new rules of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. In May, a team of Delhi Police’s Special Cell conducted raids at Twitter office which the company saw as a “potential threat to freedom of expression”.

Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times who moved the Supreme Court against communication clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir at the time of revocation of special status under Article 370, observed that India signing the statement for online freedom is a result of the “fight against internet curbs”.

Journalist Rana Ayyub asked how Modi was able to “speak with a straight face” in the meeting.

 

India is said to have made its reservations known a month before the leaders met stressing that personal freedoms need “careful nurturing” and there must be on guard against fake news and digital manipulation.

The statement underlined the need to support human rights for all, democracy, opposition to discrimantion and the right of everyone to participate fully and equally in society.

It exhibited commitment to “strengthen open societies globally by protecting civic space and media freedom, promoting freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of religion or belief, and by tackling all forms of discrimination, including racism.”

Notably, another G-7 statement that India did not sign blasted China on its treatment of Uyghurs and issues in Hong Kong.

Another session ‘Building Back Greener: Climate and Nature’ where PM Modi participated, he spoke on India’s commitment to climate action.

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