BBC Punjabi Twitter account blocked in India

The Twitter account of BBC News’s Punjabi language service was blocked in India on Tuesday amid the ongoing nationwide manhunt for controversial preacher and separatist leader Amritpal Singh.

A message on BBC News Punjabi’s account page said: “Account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand.”

The development came just days after the official Twitter handles of several journalists in the state, who were reporting on the manhunt for Mr Singh, were also withheld.

BBC News Punjabi said in a report that it had written to the Indian authorities asking about the suspension of its Twitter account but was yet to receive a response.

The account was finally reactivated late on Tuesday, with a BBC spokesperson confirming that it had been “withheld for a number of hours”. No further details were provided on the reason for the account being blocked.

Mr Singh is the leader of the radical organisation “Waris Punjab De” (Heirs of Punjab) which backs the decades-old movement for a separate state for Sikhs called Khalistan. A self-styled preacher, he claims to follow in the teachings and dress style of Indian militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who led a major separatist movement in India in the 1980s.

On 18 March, police in Punjab launched a statewide crackdown, including a clampdown on internet services, in the northern state of 27 million people.

Police planned to arrest him in Jalandhar but he managed to escape with the help of his supporters.

On 20 March, as part of an internet shutdown across Punjab, several local journalists including Gagandeep Singh, affiliated with local news outlet ProPunjabTV, and Kamaldeep Singh Brar of the national daily The Indian Express had access to their Twitter accounts withheld due to a “legal demand”.

BBC News Punjabi had its Twitter account blocked in India (Screengrab/Twitter/BBC News Punjabi)
BBC News Punjabi had its Twitter account blocked in India (Screengrab/Twitter/BBC News Punjabi)

Overall, more than 120 accounts have been suspended amid the pursuit of Mr Singh, according to filings released by Twitter, reported The Hindu.

The action against the BBC comes months after authorities in India conducted raids on its offices in New Delhi and Mumbai following a documentary on prime minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots and his relationship with the minority Muslims in the country.

The raids, described as “surveys” by tax authorities looked into the British broadcaster’s financial transactions and were a part of a probe into “deliberate non-compliance with the transfer pricing rules” and its “vast diversion of profits”.

The latest action against the BBC News Punjabi’s Twitter account has drawn criticism from journalists and observers in India.

“You have a media picking up plants, running pics of amritpal without any sourcing, making any claim they want, but the journalism that gets pulled down on twitter by bbc punjabi is one that adheres to the requisite professional standards. all this govt wants left is propaganda,” wrote The Caravan’s Hartosh Singh Bal.

Commentator Jas Oberoi wrote: “The verified account of BBC Punjabi has been banned in India for covering Indian Govt’s crackdown in Punjab.”

“If everything is right in Punjab then why ‘gag’ order of withholding Twitter accounts of journalists reporting from Punjab? After journalists, now BBC Punjabi twitter account has been withheld in India. Why can’t we access information from Punjab? Who is afraid of critical media?” wrote lawyer Kawalpreet Kaur.

Journalist Rana Ayyub wrote: “Why was BBC Punjabi not publishing the exclusive leaks, handouts, photographs, interviews handed over by the government. Why Was it trying to do independent journalism ?“

Journalists have also questioned whether this will become the “new normal” in the state.

Around 200 of Mr Singh’s supporters and aides have been arrested while the self-styled preacher remains elusive.

Meanwhile authorities in Nepal on Monday placed Mr Singh on its surveillance list following a request from the India, reported NDTV.