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Indian censors media, Twitter critics

Riot response overkill alert!

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The Indian government has blacklisted media reports and social media accounts as part of its ongoing attempts to prevent the spread of rumours and calm simmering sectarian tensions.

The rumours concern clashes between the indigenous Bodo community and Muslim settlers in Assam earlier this month. The clashes left scores dead and triggered an online backlash.

The government accused hard line elements from rival Pakistan of spreading rumours by text and other channels of violent reprisals against north-eastern migrants – rumours which led to their mass exodus from cities including Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune.

The authorities have already placed a ban on the sending of bulk SMS messages and are in the process of shuttering hundreds of sites and social media accounts.

The Economic Times claims to have obtained the four letters sent by the IT ministry’s Department of Telecommunications between 18-21 August to the country’s ISPs.

A number of the blacklisted URLs examined by The Reg checked out did indeed belong to sites that contained content ascribing accounts of violence to different religious groups.

However, several stood out from reputable news sources such as The Telegraph and Times of India and merely contained reports on the original violence in Assam.

Of the 16 Twitter accounts listed, two belong to journalists - @shivaroor and @kanchangupta – while several others belong to netizens who are mostly critical of the government and its handling of the whole affair. Eloquently outspoken maybe, but not inflammatory.

A parody account of prime minister Manmohan Singh is also on the list – one of six fake accounts which the government has claimed are ‘misrepresenting’ Singh.

That account is clearly listed as parody, in line with Twitter's rules.

Rather more disturbingly for transparent government advocates, there is no reference on the letters obtained by the ET to any of the laws under which the government is claiming to act in requesting such web blocks.

Netizens in the world’s largest democracy will be hoping that the current clampdown is just a case of a little temporary heavy-handedness on the part of the government rather than the start of a more permanent clampdown on free expression online.

The authorities have already raised such fears by imposing temporary blanket bans on content sharing sites such as Vimeo and Daily Motion after a recent anti-piracy ruling.

The government is also said to be planning a Cyber Co-Ordination Centre to monitor the flow of all traffic in and out of the country. ®

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