Facebook under fire for 'censoring' Kashmir-related posts and accounts

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Facebook has censored dozens of posts and user accounts after the death of a high-profile Kashmiri separatist militant, who was killed by the Indian army earlier this month.

Academics, journalists and the pages of local newspapers are among those who have had photos, videos and entire accounts deleted by Facebook after they posted about recent events in the disputed territory.

Burhan Wani, a senior member of the Hizbul Mujahideen rebel group was killed by the Indian army on 8 July. About 30 people died in the violent protests that spread across Kashmir in the aftermath of the killing, and an indefinite curfew has been introduced by the Indian government. Wani was considered a terrorist by the Indian authorities, but a freedom fighter by many Kashmiris and Pakistanis.

Mobile phone coverage, landlines and internet services were curbed throughout the region, except in its main city of Srinagar, and police raided newspaper offices, seizing thousands of printed copies.

Authorities lifted a three-day publication ban on newspapers on Tuesday, but editors refuse to resume printing until the government apologised.

Kashmiris say that the information blackout has been exacerbated by censorship on Facebook.

“There are no papers and we only get two TV news channels,” said Zargar Yasir, a Kashmiri blogger and PhD student who said his account was blocked for more than a week, with some posts removed, after he linked to a self-authored blogpost about Wani.

“When there’s no news, usually we turn to social media for information. That way at least we can talk to each other, we can ask our families and friends how they are, if they are OK. But Facebook has taken my account down, so how do I do that now?” said Yasir.

To get round the government’s news ban, reporters have been updating the news websites and posting on social media to keep people informed.

Mubashir Bukhari, a journalist writing for a paper called Kashmir Monitor said: “When I came into work yesterday, I saw that Facebook had removed a video we had posted. The video showed Syed Ali Shah Ghelani, a separatist leader, condemning the death of Burhan Wani. We have never had anything else removed from our Facebook page.”

Without credible information or access to communication channels there is an atmosphere of uncertainty in the Muslim-majority region. “There are so many rumours flying around, people saying ‘Did you hear about this man who died?’ when the man is still alive. Or did you hear about that shooting here? When actually it happened somewhere else,” said Yasir.

Social media companies such as Facebook are under increasing pressure to limit the spread of extremist propaganda – but have also faced criticism that they have gone too far.

Rizwan Sajid, whose account was blocked after he changed his profile picture to an image of Burhan Wani, said Facebook’s actions amounted to Islamophobia. “Why is it that only Muslims get blocked? Facebook is being one-sided by supporting the atrocities committed by the Indian army. Other people can say whatever they want, but if Muslims say something, we get blocked. It is not neutral.”

Huma Dar, a Kashmiri academic in California, found that her profile had been deleted without warning after she posted images of Wani’s funeral last Sunday. “The day that Burhan was killed, I got messages from friends in India saying some of their photos had been deleted. I thought it had something to do with the Indian government. I live a mile and a half away from Facebook’s headquarters in America; I never thought it would happen to me.”

Dar, an academic at UC Berkley and California State who teaches a class about cinema and terrorism, said: “Naturally I post about these things, and I use Facebook as a place to discuss ideas.”

When Dar wrote to Facebook about her account being deleted, she got a response saying that her posts had “violated community standards. The email did not mention which post specifically had led to the deletion of her account but said, “One of our main priorities is the comfort and safety of the people who use Facebook, and we don’t allow credible threats to harm others, support for violent organizations or exceedingly graphic content on Facebook.”

“I am very careful about what I post,” says Dar, who often writes about various issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the war in Gaza. “The biggest irony is that I get death threats, I get people saying they’ll come and rape me and my mother. None of those people, even when I complain to Facebook, have ever been censored.”

Dar says she’s outraged by Facebook’s decision. “I use it a lot, I post articles and papers for my students, and I run working groups for my research. Now my students and the people who use those resources can’t access any of that. I have poems that I wrote and I have long messages from friends who have now died – those correspondences are gone forever and they were very precious to me.”

Dibyesh Anand, an academic at the University of Westminster, had his posts removed, and was blocked from using Facebook for 24 hours twice after he posted about Wani’s death. “I’ve had two apology messages from Facebook, saying that the posts were taken down accidentally.”

“This definitely amounts to censorship because it makes people think twice before they post something.”

In a statement, Facebook said: “There is no place on Facebook for content that praises or supports terrorists, terrorists organisations or terrorism. We welcome discussion on these subjects but any terrorist content has to be clearly put in context which condemns these organisations and or their violent activities. Therefore, profiles and content supporting or praising Hizbul Mujahideen and Burhan Wani are removed as soon as they are reported to us. In this instance, some content was removed in error, but this has now been restored.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Vidhi Doshi in Mumbai, for The Guardian on Tuesday 19th July 2016 17.21 Europe/London

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