(New York, NY) — PEN America today condemned the Indian government’s attempts to stifle free expression by censoring social media posts amid the country’s battle with a massive surge in COVID-19 cases.

As India broke a global COVID-19 record Monday with 352,991 new cases and 2,812 virus-related deaths (making it the world’s highest daily caseload for the fifth day in a row), Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued an order calling on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to take down dozens of posts criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. Roughly 100 posts were targeted, including critiques from opposition politicians and calls for Modi to resign. The government’s rationale for censoring anti-government statements was that the posts were not informative, could incite panic, and could hinder state response to the pandemic. According to The New York Times, the companies removed the posts “in part by making the posts invisible to those using the sites inside India.” It remains unclear whether the posts will remain blocked and whether further measures will be taken by the platforms in response to government pressure.

“The Indian government has claimed that the extent of the COVID crisis should not be reported or discussed freely online, but we reject this claim and condemn the authorities’ attempts to suppress speech on social media platforms,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s free expression at risk programs. “Free expression is essential in times of crisis, and all the more so in the midst of a public health emergency. By denying people the right to share news and critique their government’s response to the crisis, Prime Minister Modi is blocking access to crucial information about public health and insight into the government’s performance. Modi’s underreporting of the true reach of the virus’s spread and his attempt to silence dissenting voices is a heavy-handed attempt to censor social media for self-serving political purposes.”

India’s second wave of the pandemic has overrun its hospital system and limited essential medical resources, including oxygen supplies and available doctors. Hospitals and residents have created social media profiles to post pleas for more medical supplies, bolstering social media’s importance as a forum for people to provide critical services and express their emotional and monetary support for victims of COVID-19. 

India’s latest efforts to suppress government criticism reflect a broader decline of free expression in the country. In the 2020 Freedom to Write Index, PEN America noted a concerning increase in the number of writers jailed in India in the last year, with many detainees facing politically motivated legal charges for their advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups in India. Apart from cases of imprisonment or detention, several dozen writers have endured online harassment, physical threats, lawsuits, or other forms of intimidation.