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YouTube blocks access to Fifth Estate story on killing of B.C. Sikh activist at India's demand

The Indian government is blocking social media access within its country to a Fifth Estate story that included security video of the deadly shooting of Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Indian government is blocking social media access within its country to a Fifth Estate story that included security video of the deadly shooting of Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

YouTube is blocking access in India to a story by CBC's The Fifth Estate on the alleged contract killing of a Canadian Sikh separatist after the Indian government ordered the social media platform to take that action.

The Fifth Estate story released on Friday included video of the fatal shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar last June as he left his place of worship in Surrey, B.C.

In an email to CBC on Wednesday, YouTube said it had received an order from India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to block access to the video of the story from its website.

YouTube confirmed to CBC News Wednesday afternoon that "the content has now been blocked from view" on the India YouTube country site. While the content is restricted in India, the video is still available everywhere else on YouTube.

Meanwhile, X, formerly known as Twitter, also informed CBC that it had received a legal removal demand from the Indian government relating to the Fifth Estate story.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C.

Nijjar was president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C. (David McIntosh/CBC)

"Indian law obligates X to withhold access to this content in India; however, the content remains available elsewhere," X said in an email to The Fifth Estate.

"We disagree with this action and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts. Following the Indian legal process, we are in current communication with the Indian authorities."

In emails from YouTube and X to CBC, the platforms said the Indian government was citing the country's Information Technology Act 2000 in making the orders.

According to one section of that act, the government has the power to "intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource." Such action can be taken, according to the act, in the interest of:

  • The sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state.

  • Friendly relations with foreign states.

  • Public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to these.

  • Investigating any offence.

Video shows Nijjar leaving parking lot

The Fifth Estate story that aired last week included video that showed Nijjar, the president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, leaving the parking lot of his place of worship in Surrey on the evening of June 18, 2023, in his grey Dodge Ram pickup truck.

As he approaches the exit, a white sedan pulls in front of him, blocking his truck. Two men then run up and shoot Nijjar before escaping in a silver Toyota Camry.

The co-ordinated attack involved six men and two vehicles. Almost nine months later, the RCMP has yet to name suspects or make arrests in relation to Nijjar's death.

The apparent targeted killing of Nijjar ultimately led to accusations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the government of India ordered the killing — a claim that severely damaged diplomatic ties between Canada and India.

India has strongly denied any connection to the killing.

WATCH | The full Fifth Estate episode:

Chuck Thompson, a spokesman with CBC News, said it stands by its journalism on the story.

"To ensure fairness and balance, the documentary included a wide range of voices, witnesses and subject matter experts," he said.

"And, as is the case with all stories on The Fifth Estate, "Contract To Kill" was thoroughly researched, vetted by senior editorial leaders and meets our journalistic standards."

Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization focusing on civil liberties on the internet, said these actions by the India government are part of a pattern they've seen over the past few years. The government will take advantage of its own laws to pressure social media companies to take down content it doesn't like, she said.

"Unfortunately, at this point, it's got pretty broad legal powers to do that. And as far as we can tell, is not hesitating at all to use them," she said.

"The companies are in a difficult position because on the one hand, if they want to be able to provide services in a given country, they may need to comply with those country's laws whether or not they want to."