Indian journalists turned to YouTube to dodge Modi’s censorship. Some of their channels are now being blocked

As the country votes in this year’s crucial election, news channels are being banned or demonetised in a move criticised by press freedom groups
Supporters of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi wear masks of his face, as they attend an election campaign rally in Meerut, India, March 31, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Supporters of Narendra Modi wear masks of his face, as they attend an election campaign rally in Meerut, India. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

9th May 2024

As India’s 900 million people began to cast their votes in this year’s crucial elections, the tussle between the government of Narendra Modi and independent YouTube news channels accelerated.

On 4 April, Bolta Hindustan, a Hindi news YouTube channel, received an email from YouTube saying that the channel had been blocked due to a notice received from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Before it was blocked, the channel had 275,000 subscribers and had posted more than 4,000 videos.

Thirty-four-year-old Haseen Rehmani, the founder of Bolta Hindustan, doesn’t know why YouTube blocked it. “We still don’t have any explanation,” he recently told me.

When Medianama, a tech policy website, sought a response from YouTube on the above restrictions, a spokesperson responded by saying, “Any claims that are demonstrably false and could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process are in violation of our policies. These guidelines are enforced consistently, regardless of the creator, their background, political viewpoint, position or affiliation.”

Rehmani said that YouTube has ways to filter out fake news. They have community guidelines which restrict a video if enough people flag it as fake, he added. If a video violated those standards, they should have pulled down that video instead of the whole channel. 

On the same day, Lokhit India, another Hindi YouTube channel, got an email from YouTube saying that the channel could no longer monetise its content. Lokhit India has just almost 1.5 million subscribers. A few days before, Indus News TV, also a Hindi YouTube channel, also received a similar email. Neither of these channels has been able to monetise their content since.

YouTuber Sohit Mishra said that five of the videos he uploaded on Electronic Voting Machines and the Election Commission were demonetised by YouTube. For YouTubers who rely financially on their channels, this is a death knell, he said. “If they restrict videos that have something to say about the Election Commission, that means they are dictating what you can say and what you cannot,” he told me. 

Protest together

General elections began in India on 19 April and will be conducted over several phases until 1 June. The results will be announced on 4 June. 

On 8 April, only 11 days before the vote, a delegation led by the Indian National Congress, the opposition's main party, approached the Election Commission of India. They said blocking Bolta Hindustan was a violation of free speech in a country that was to go to the polls soon.

On 9 April, National Dastak, a YouTube news channel with almost 10 million subscribers, received an email from YouTube saying India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had directed a blocking of the channel. “The notice itself is confidential so we are unable to share it with you at this time,” the email read. The YouTube channel still exists online, but the journalists are working under constant threat, said Jasneem -Ul Haque, a senior executive at National Dastak, an outlet which describes itself as a voice of Dalits, Adivasis, farmers, women and oppressed people. 

Navin Kumar, who runs the news platform Article 19 India, took to X to say that Facebook restricted their page since February 27. “We have been fighting the battle with Meta alone, but now is the time to unite against such muzzling of free flow of information,” he said.

On 19 April, a delegation of 15 YouTubers went to the Election Commission to protest the blocking or demonetising of their channels. Rehmani says nothing came off it.

Why does YouTube matter?

Modi’s first term in office began a process of delegitimation and co-option of the mainstream media, wrote senior journalist and media scholar Sevanti Ninan. “[The media] was denied access to government sources for primary news gathering, while the prime minister and his ministers used the state-owned media and social media to communicate with the citizenry.”

In the decade that Narendra Modi has been in power, he has not granted a single press conference and has only briefly taken questions from the press during his visit to the US and the UK. Modi’s second term has gone even further, explained Ninan. Print and television news have been co-opted and no longer provoke the government in a major way, she explained. “The effort to control is now focused on the digital media, including social media.”

Over 50% of India’s 1.3 billion people have access to the internet. This number is only said to increase in the coming years. With trust in TV news dipping, YouTube has become a critical platform for disseminating news and opinions.

According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2023, 56% of respondents in India said they used YouTube for news with 39% using Facebook and 32% using Instagram. India has about 462 million YouTube users. In a country where TikTok is banned, research agency YouGov, said that India’s Generation Z – those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s – mainly use YouTube for consuming video content.

Politicians are now increasingly granting interviews to YouTube channels, especially after some opposition leaders boycotted TV news channels. During his foot march across the country, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi only gave interviews to YouTubers such as Samdish Bhatia. He did not speak to mainstream journalists at all.

Several high-profile journalists started their YouTube channels after they quit their jobs in TV. Most notable among them are Ravish Kumar and Abhisar Sharma.

What the law says

Some Indian digital media entities have been fighting the government over what they claim are restrictive laws. These laws, called the Information Technology Rules, were introduced in February 2021, even as the pandemic raged on.

As soon as these laws were passed, several petitions were filed in courts across the country challenging them. However, in March 2023, just a few days before these notices were served, the Supreme Court directed the Delhi High Court to consider if the law should remain in its existing format. The Court is yet to decide on this.

The notices served to the social media news accounts were based on two laws.

The first one was the Rule 15 of the Information Technology Rules. According to this rule, a group of bureaucrats and government officials hear complaints against social media channels raised by individuals or the Information and Broadcasting Ministry itself. They then send interim notices to intermediaries – in this case YouTube – to take the channel down. 

Once these notes are sent, the owners of the social media channels have the opportunity to respond. Bolta Hindustan did not get a chance to respond as they were not sent a notice at all. The editors found their channels blocked with no possibility to appeal.

The second regulation invoked allows for an emergency blocking of any piece of content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above.” These terms are very vague, said Radhika Roy from the Internet Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that has challenged these laws in the court. 

“Intermediaries are profit driven entities. If it makes more financial sense for them to comply with government orders, they will do so,” Roy said.

In the last week of April, WhatsApp and Meta filed a plea challenging India's 2021 IT rules for social media intermediaries. They said they cannot be obligated to identify the initial source of information, as that would break their end-to-end encryption. If forced to do so, WhatsApp threatened to exit the country. This is an instance where it doesn't make financial sense for Meta, said Roy, therefore it is challenging the provision in court.  

The flip side

The ruling party has often used YouTube to its advantage. In 2023, five federal ministers granted interviews to YouTubers, and these interviews got millions of views. YouTubers such as Ranveer Allahabadia have posed soft questions to the ministers, often not pushing them for answers about their public work. Some of those videos were also reposted by politicians on their own YouTube channels or on the channels of their political parties.

In March 2023, Tripurari Kumar Tiwari alias Manish Kashyap, a YouTuber from the northern state of Bihar, shared fake videos claiming that Hindi speaking migrant workers were attacked in a Tamil language dominant southern state. Multiple cases were filed against him. He is out on bail now after spending nine months in prison. He is now contesting elections as a candidate for the BJP, Modi’s party.

The BJP recognised the power of social media in the previous elections. But its focus on YouTube increased after Internet data charges were lowered by telecom providers. In the last few years, the party has recognised YouTube’s potential to influence the electorate. 

The BJP also awarded National Creators Awards to several YouTubers in March 2024. Twenty-year-old YouTuber Jahnvi Singh, who was given the Heritage Fashion Icon Award at the ceremony by the Prime Minister, told AFP that collaborating with the government was an “opportunity,” and said she valued the party’s focus on Hinduism because she feared India was "forgetting our roots and culture". 

The increasing focus on YouTube from all sides of the political spectrum suggests this platform will have an important impact on this year’s election. Whether the BJP’s tactics are enough for this platform to gain the support of Indian voters remains to be seen.

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