Twitter temporarily blocked access to accounts in India belonging to politicians and activists on Monday following pressure from Narendra Modi’s government over contentious new agricultural laws in the country.
The move drew accusations of censorship as New Delhi ramps up pressure against farmers protesting the reforms, which aim to loosen regulation in the country’s agricultural sector. Last week, clashes in the capital left one protester dead and hundreds of police injured.
The accounts, which had been critical of the new laws, were blocked following a request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, according to Twitter. The suspension was later lifted, however, after company representatives met government officials.
Among those whose accounts were affected were the influential magazine The Caravan, members of the opposition Aam Aadmi party and the Communist Party of India, and accounts linked to the protest movement such as Kisan Ekta Morcha.
“We are flabbergasted by the attack on our freedom of speech in our free country when we need it the most,” wrote a spokesperson for the Tractor2Twitter account, which was created to support protesters on social media.
“This [is what] happens when [the] whole nation is suffering the after-effects of propaganda and fake news.”
The move comes as social platforms have faced scrutiny for their handling of censorship requests by governments in the Asia Pacific region. Facebook was criticised last year over allegations that it had refused to remove posts made by politicians belonging to the ruling BJP that violated its rules. Facebook denies the allegations.
A spokesperson for Twitter said that many countries have laws they can invoke in relation to tweets. “In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a properly scoped request from an authorised entity . . . it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”
The company did not provide further information on the nature of the legal request from the Indian government nor the total number of accounts affected. However according to local news outlets including Asian News International, the Indian government alleged in its complaint to Twitter that the accounts were spreading falsehoods relating to the new laws.
As the protests have escalated, the Indian government has responded with increasingly heavy-handed tactics. Privacy advocates have raised concerns over the use of facial recognition systems, pointing to the lack of a national law to regulate their use. The government also temporarily suspended internet services in areas bordering Delhi where protesters had gathered.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology did not respond to request for comment.
Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco and Benjamin Parkin in Mumbai