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Government instructs YouTube to block National Dastak and Bolta Hindustan channels

Since the beginning of April, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has instructed YouTube to block the channels of two Hindi news outlets, raising concerns about censorship, particularly with the impending 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The two affected channels, ‘Bolta Hindustan’ and ‘National Dastak,’ boast substantial subscriber bases of over 3 lakh and 94.2 lakh, respectively. YouTube notified the channel owners that the blocking requests invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Rule 15(2) of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. However, the legality of these notices has been questioned, as experts note deviations from proper procedural requirements.

Under Section 69A, the government can block public access to information on various grounds, including sovereignty, defense, public order, and preventing incitement to offenses. However, concerns arise when these orders lack specificity and transparency. For instance, the reasons behind blocking the aforementioned channels were not explicitly disclosed, leaving the affected parties puzzled.

Additionally, the absence of proper legal procedures, such as providing channels the opportunity to present their case before any orders are passed against them, raises doubts about the fairness of the process. Both the editors of ‘Bolta Hindustan’ and ‘National Dastak’ confirmed not receiving communication from the government regarding appearances before any committee.

Critics argue that political content, such as that produced by ‘Bolta Hindustan,’ should not necessarily be equated with anti-national or anti-India material. However, the lack of transparency in the government’s actions further complicates the situation.

The issue of government-ordered censorship extends beyond these instances, reflecting a broader trend of increased content takedowns and social media account blocks without prior warning. Platforms like YouTube and Twitter often find themselves in a difficult position, compelled to comply with government directives to avoid legal repercussions under the Information Technology Act, 2000.

In March 2024, for example, YouTube was instructed to block a CBC News documentary addressing the Indian government’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Similar directives were reportedly issued to Twitter (now X) regarding related posts.

Despite these challenges, efforts to promote transparency and accountability in government actions have emerged. Petitions have been filed, urging authorities to disclose Section 69A blocking orders or at least provide affected users with copies of such orders. The Delhi Union of Journalists and political entities like the Congress have also voiced concerns and sought intervention from regulatory bodies like the Election Commission.

As tensions escalate, affected parties like ‘Bolta Hindustan’ vow to challenge the decisions through official channels and, if necessary, legal recourse. The situation underscores the delicate balance between government regulation, freedom of expression, and the responsibilities of digital platforms in a rapidly evolving media landscape.

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