Facebook linked to free speech crackdown in India after lobbyist files charges

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A Facebook policy executive out of the company’s India offices has filed a criminal complaint against a journalist, Awesh Tiwari, alleging his critical post he published on the social network constitutes sexual harassment, criminal intimidation, and defamation. Yet the complaint produces no evidence Tiwari engaged in such conduct, according to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and many press advocates are seeing it as an attempt to intimidate journalism critical of the ruling regime.

Tiwari says the claims are “baseless” and designed to intimidate him into silence and he has filed counter-claims against the Facebook employee, according to a separate report from Newslaundry. The CPJ is also calling for the withdrawal of the complaint to protect Tiwari’s freedom of speech. The CPJ says Tiwari could face fines and two years in prison if convinced of sexual harassment or defamation, as well as seven additional years if convicted of criminal intimidation.

The controversy stems from a story in The Wall Street Journal published last week detailing how the Facebook executive, a member of the public policy team named Ankhi Das, protected politicians of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party from hate speech policies that would have gotten them suspended or removed from the platform. Some of the politicians, like T. Raja Singh, have used Facebook to call for violence against Rohingya Muslim immigrants and the burning of mosques.

As part of her role, Das also acts as Facebook lobbyist whose job involves communicating and maintaining relationships within the Indian government. So when Hindu nationalist politicians began violating the platform’s hate speech rules by targeting Muslims with violent rhetoric, Das reportedly argued against moderating posts and potentially taking action against the politicians for fear it would hurt the company’s business interests in the country.

Similar concerns surfaced this month in the US around Facebook’s apparent preferential treatment of far-right conservative pages and individuals. Facebook executives like public policy chief Joel Kaplan have reportedly intervened to prevent misinformation strikes applied by partnered fact checkers from resulting in page suspensions and other punishments, all because doing so might give the appearance of an internal bias against conservatives.

Das, however, has decided to go on the offensive against those who’ve criticized her actions on social media. According to her criminal complaint, Das is targeting five individuals — Travis Bikal, Himanshu Deshmukh, Anamika Singh, Awesh Tiwari, and a Twitter user under the name @justanalysis — for allegedly endangering her with violent threats that constitute criminal intention and sexual harassment. The complaint also says the posts intended to defame her.

“It is patently absurd that an executive of Facebook, which claims a commitment to freedom of the press and free expression, would file a criminal complaint against a journalist for criticizing her on that very platform,” Aliya Iftikhar, a senior Asia researcher with CPJ, said in a statement. “In trying to intimidate Awesh Tiwari, Ankhi Das is merely suggesting that The Wall Street Journal story that he cited struck a sensitive nerve. She should immediately withdraw her complaint.”

Of the individuals named, only Tiwari is a journalist, and he works for the Hindi TV news channel Swaraj Express. His Facebook post criticizing Das is still live here, published on August 16th at 1AM ET. It details various points raised in the WSJ investigation and Tiwari provides personal commentary throughout, none of which appears to involve any form of violent or intimidating threats or sexual harassment. The other posts grouped in the complaint include Deshmukh’s share of Tiwari’s original post with a tag mentioning Das and then three accounts involving either fake or pseudonymous names, two of which made death threats against Das and a third that simply retweeted the threat.

The allegations cut against CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public commitment to free speech, which has been invoked in response to many of the platform’s recent scandals. In particular, Facebook has invoked free speech values as a justification for its refusal to moderate some content, including threats posted by the account of President Donald Trump, even while it appears to apply a different rule set to its most powerful users and those with which it has politically advantageous relationships. Supporting a Facebook employee’s retaliation against critical reporting could undercut many of those arguments.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

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