INTERVIEW | Twitter Files vindicate our stand on how journalists, analysts, politicians were censored: Lawyer who dragged Vijaya-Parag to courtroom

India lawyer Raghav Awasthi fought lengthy courtroom battles to ensure accountability on part of social media giants, to uphold one’s freedom of expression

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By: Rohan Dua | NEW DELHI
Updated: 23 January, 2023 12:42 pm IST

He has taken the biggest social media giants of the world to court and proved that nothing is bigger than the court of law.

In the latest episode of CROSSFIRE, The New Indian’s Executive Editor Rohan Dua spoke with Raghav Awasthi, the man who fought for the freedom of expression for many illustrious journalists, think tank specialists, analysts and authors. Excerpts from the interview:

Rohan Dua: I want to congratulate you for the kind of battles that you have led in the Indian courts, fought for the freedom of expression, and defended the rights of many illustrious people, including prominent author Vikram Sampath. How do you see fighting these legal battles in the court and how difficult or easy were they?

Raghav Awasthi: I think fighting courtroom battles is never easy. I think a lot of research goes into every draft that is prepared. And then in court, of course, it’s like being in the trenches, where the bullets can rain down upon you at any moment.

Having said that, I feel that the stand that we took in quite a few cases against Twitter has been vindicated completely by the Twitter Files.

We now know that not just in the Indian context, but also in the American context, there were Twitter officials who were actively tasked with promoting a certain agenda.

In the Indian context, around April 2021, when many people believed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s star had fallen, Twitter was up to its usual tricks. There were some tweets by Sambit Patra, the national spokesperson of the BJP, that Twitter marked as manipulated media.

And there are so many claims that were made by Rahul Gandhi at that time and that were relayed through his official Twitter handle that were not similarly censored or labelled.

And then, I think during one of the depositions, Vijaya Gadde (former legal head of Twitter) admitted that when it comes to the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), some censorship was being done.

And so, you find this pervasive pattern here wherein people who are BJP supporters, who belong to the Indic wing are being suppressed. Their right to free speech was being suppressed on Twitter.

And there was a reason for that.

I do feel that Twitter was acting then as an arm of the American Deep State. And since it was acting as an arm of the American Deep State, it felt that it should do the bidding of the American Deep State. And, of course, the American Deep State would be hostile to any leader like PM Narendra Modi, under whose leadership India is now being talked up as a rival to China, not just in India but around the world. So, they would be interested in undermining his leadership. And it is really unfortunate.

To me, the disappointing part is that there were so many people of Indian origin who were working in India as Twitter employees, and of course, there were many who were working elsewhere and acting as some sort of Brown supporter.

I’ll give you a very small example. You look at Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, all that he had tweeted, without any personal details being given out, was that of a certain journalist who stood as surety to Mohammad Zubair. And this fact was something that was tweeted out by Mitra and Twitter censored him. And they said that unless you delete this tweet, we will not allow you to get back onto this platform. And his cases are still pending before the Delhi High Court.

RD: But he has returned to Twitter.

RA: His return to Twitter is because, under the new regime, Twitter removed that condition. But we have to figure out what happened before that.

We also need to emphasise that although Twitter might have new management at the helm whom we can trust completely, and who may be committed to free speech as an absolute value, there are still platforms like Google and YouTube, and also meta platforms, that are being run by the same kind of people who will actively try not just to influence elections in India, but will try and somehow oppose PM Narendra Modi.

We cannot have a foreign corporation, or we can’t have foreign corporations, that are accountable only to their shareholders and their lives and masters in the American Deep State, influencing elections here.

RD: Given that the new digital media ethics code and intermediary rules are being implemented in this country, do you believe there is currently an effort to force them to reconcile with Indian laws and hold them accountable? Or do you still believe that having fought these battles in the court of law, it’s still difficult for anyone in the Indian context?

RA: I think this is a very interesting question, and we need to look at these rules first. So as per the intermediary rules of 2021, there is a very specific procedure laid down in case you want to delete somebody’s post as an intermediary or you want to delete somebody’s account. And those parameters have been laid down and there are only specific grounds under which you can do that suo moto, or unless there is a court order.

So, if we go back to the Shreya Singhal judgment, it very clearly said that unless there is a court order, nothing can be removed and nobody will be removed. Then these intermediary rules came along and established a specific set of circumstances under which this could be done in addition to, say, a court order and something was found to be defamatory.

So, if your case doesn’t fall within any of these parameters, these intermediaries cannot remove anything that you write and they cannot even remove you from the platform. And if they do it, then there is something known as ‘Rule 4, Clause 8’, under which they first have to give you a notice and listen to your explanation. And then there is an appellate procedure that has been laid down.

So, there is a very elaborate process in place. However, in practice, these guidelines were not being followed. What was happening was that these people were doing their labelling. They were deleting the accounts of people who they believed did not share their ideology.

And the problem in our country, as is so often the case, was enforcement.

As a result, our work thus far has only revealed the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of people are being censored right now. And this is a danger that we as a country cannot remain unmindful of because, as I said, this is how the East India Company started to operate.

Something similar is happening now when you have these intermediary guidelines and these people are not complying with them. And before we know it, we might be ruled by these people.

RD: Do things become brighter for the Indian democracy from here on, considering that the new rules will be in place soon?

RA: Elon Musk’s ascension to the helm of Twitter is a positive signal, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that if you look at the three tech giants, Google, Meta platforms and Twitter, Twitter is the smallest of these three.

When it comes to YouTube or Facebook or Instagram, people with similar ideological predilections are in charge.

So, there is censorship that is happening and there are many people who are still suffering under this jackboot of censorship. And, as I previously stated, this is not the only attempt to stifle free expression in India. There is a larger agenda at play. And you know, if you look at these Western countries, the playbook hasn’t changed for the last 200 years.

It’s the same initially you come in as a trading operation, then you start fiddling a little bit, you know, testing the waters to see how much you can interfere in Indian internal affairs and get away with it. And then, before you know it, these people are going to take charge. And that’s highly unfortunate.

RD: Do you concur with the boycott calls against Bollywood?

RA: If you look at the time up until the fifties and sixties, you had many movies that were being made on religious and patriotic themes that were doing very well. But something changed around the 1960s when the Marxists started taking over.

And then in the seventies, you have Deewar, wherein Amitabh Bachchan is supposed to be this atheist, and he says that he will not go into a temple. And he doesn’t even take prasad when it comes from his mother. And yet Amitabh Bachchan’s character still carries that 786 mark.

So, the idea is to somehow demean the Hindu religion and also glorify some other religion at the expense of the Hindu religion. So, this attempt to get at them gets more and more insidious as we move towards the eighties. It went on till the Bombay blast.

Then came the Haider, which was made in 2014, which gives you a terrorist perspective.

If you look at Shah Rukh Khan’s movies, like Chak De India, the whole idea of Muslim victimhood is sold. It was a big hit because the Hindu masses are gullible, they don’t know the truth.

They don’t know the truth that Shahrukh Khan is publicly endorsing the likes of Zakir Nayak, and we know that Naik is a terrorist.

And I’m not saying that all of Bollywood has to be tarred with the same brush. It is an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people. But if there is one particular movie, take the case of ‘Pathaan’ where they have shown this actress who’s gyrating in a saffron-coloured bikini and she is leaving nothing to the imagination. Then there’s this guy singing the Besharm Rang. So, what is it that they’re trying to show at a subliminal level? They are trying to say that the colour saffron is besharam or shameless.

We should boycott his films because boycotting them is the only way to get them to create better content.

And I think this is something similar to what happened in the case of Family Man. So, Family Man season one was different, and Family Man season two is different and themes of love, jihad and all are being touched. So ultimately, I think this boycott is a very potent weapon in our hands.

And if we want them to run, because ultimately that’s an industry that, like any other industry, cares about its bottom line. When you’re hitting them at the bottom line, then what is going to happen is that they are going to change that.

RD: How do you explain the decoration being given to this actor if India continues to berate her and tries to make her accountable for what she did wrong?

RA: So, as far as Deepika Padukone is concerned, I think these actors are being given too much credit. I remember in one of her interviews in 2011, she talked about Rahul Gandhi as a great leader who was going to completely reform the country.

So, I don’t think these people should be given too much credit. Having said that, the reason why the FIFA World Cup people invited her was that they thought that was one way to garner eyeballs from India, which is a big market. So, it was a marketing gimmick targeted at her Instagram following. I don’t think she was there to represent India.

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