Two creative works, including a nine-minute short film on human rights violations in Kashmir by Kerala-based filmmaker Sandeep Ravindranath, have been geo-blocked by YouTube, a video-streaming platform considered to be a powerful tool for activism and engagement by filmmakers and artists.
Sandeep Ravindranath's Anthem for Kashmir video, shot in North Kashmir has visual references on forced disappearances and military oppression and is accompanied by a Tamil protest rock track. The film was released on May 12, 2022, by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna and reviewed by several media outlets.
A letter from YouTube Legal Support Team sent to Sandeep Ravindranath said they have received a notice from the Examination Committee of India's Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeITY) seeking blocking of the video, pursuant to Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Expressing their inability to share the communication from MeITY, the YouTube letter said this is since the notice itself is confidential.
It also asked him to provide feedback to the Examination Committee of MeITY regarding the legality of the content. "The review process of the Examination Committee may result in a final order directing continued blocking. As per our obligation to comply with local laws, we may comply with such an order without further notice," the communique said.
"A state – and not just any state, a nuclear state, a state with nuclear bombs – is afraid of a video camera and few lines written on a piece of paper. It's almost comical how deep this insecurity runs," said Sandeep Raveendran, who is currently in the United States.
Sandeep added that when films that show reality are made, they want to ban it because it's not the narrative they want broadcasted. "It turns out it is legal to produce and exhibit propaganda movies like Kashmir Files. Not just Kashmir Files, but we know a Savarkar movie is coming and a Godse movie is in the works, these movies are promoted by the government, in hallowed spaces of democracy like the Parliament no less. They provide tax breaks and government employees are given days off to go and watch these movies with families. On the other hand, if you make a film to counter these propaganda narratives they are banned immediately," he said.
Sandeep Ravindranath, who also composed the music for the film, has served as a live-sound engineer for several creative projects. His shorts Tharattu Pattu, The Bookshelf, Santhana Gopala, Diary of an Outsider and Sub Brothers have been screened at over 100 film festivals in 20 countries and have won numerous awards.
Deplatforming content from streaming sites like YouTube is particularly worrying for filmmakers who cannot hope for releases through OTTs or theatres.
"I am shocked and dismayed that a sensitively made film like Anthem for Kashmir has been taken down from Youtube. This is simply not tolerable and this decision must be reversed at once as it flies in the face of all democratic norms," said filmmaker Anand Patwardhan in an email.
While the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has previously blocked YouTube channels accused of peddling fake news utilising the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, these videos were censored under section 69A of the Information Technology Act. The clause 69A of the Act gives unrestricted power to the government to block public access to information through any computer source in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or even public order. Last year, the government had used the controversial clause to ban 59 Chinese apps and withhold several Twitter accounts, including that of The Caravan, a news magazine.
The Indian Express had recently reported content viewing restrictions on a new song by Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala, who was shot dead last month. Moosewala's song titled SYL, highlights the 40-year-old water dispute between Haryana and Punjab over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal. During the height of militancy in Punjab, the construction of the canal, which was launched in 1982, left a trail of violent incidents. Moosewala's song featuring archival footage brings to light the days of militancy, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and the recent farmer agitation by farmers mostly from Punjab. Moosewala's song has over three crore views and both the videos can be viewed in India if accessed through a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
TNM wrote to Google, which owns YouTube, for a response on allegations of censorship and seeking details of other YouTube videos that have been withheld following requests from the Indian government.
"We have clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world. We review government removal requests when notified through the correct legal processes, and also review content for violations of our Community Guidelines. Where appropriate, we restrict or remove content in keeping with local laws and our Terms of Service after a thorough review. All of these requests are tracked and included in our Transparency Report," an YouTube spokesperson said.