Not a Great Year for Free Speech

Leslee Udwin, director of India's Daughter, addresses a press conference. Credit: PTI

Leslee Udwin, director of India’s Daughter, addresses a press conference. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Questions concerning free speech have been central to public discussion in 2015. The Hoot’s annual free speech report, Free Speech in India 2015, provides a detailed calendar of all events relevant to the freedom of speech in a year when numerous political, legal and technological changes shaped constant debates around the issue. These are also reflected in the summary of cases of censorship of different media, hate speech, sedition, defamation, threats, attacks, deaths, arrests and surveillance – all of which bring home just how central questions concerning free speech have been in the past year.

Impact on journalists

Journalists have been one of the most vulnerable groups in this entire debate, with a peak in killings, attacks, and defamation cases against them. In what The Hoot calls a ‘grim year for free speech in India’, eight journalists were killed or died on the job in different parts of the country, including Akshay Singh who was covering the Vyapam scam, Sandeep Kothari, looking into illegal mining activities in Madhya Pradesh and Jagendra Singh, writing extensively on alleged corruption and illegal mining practices of a minister in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, 27 attacks and 15 threat cases have been recorded.

Several cases of media censorship have also come up during the last year. In addition to the 21 cases of film censorship after the controversies in the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) at the beginning of the year, there have been cases of censorship of broadcast media (4), print media (3) and cyber media (13). Blocking of internet services was used by authorities in several different states to check information flows or as a precautionary security measure in the face of public tensions.

Role of government, political class

The government has played an active role in censorship and policing, both at the Central and state levels. At the Centre, the CBFC and the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry have perhaps been the most active in censoring what can enter the public domain. The large number of films censored by the CBFC already mentioned includes the blocking of films on the assassins of General A.S. Vaidya and PM Narendra Modi and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s 2014 electoral battle in Varanasi. Over and above this, the I&B Ministry banned a documentary on beef eating practices and the screening of ‘India’s Daughter’, a documentary on the Jyoti SIngh rape case by Leslee Udwin. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also played its part in policing in the last year by denying a visa to a Pakistani author. State governments have also kept a tight reign on what can be said . The varying cases mentioned in the report include the removal of renowned British sculptor Anish Kapoor, a critic of Prime Minister Modi, from a cultural panel in Rajasthan.

The political class as a whole contributed greatly to the number of free speech violations in the country, according to the report. This can mainly be attributed to the high number of defamation cases politicians have filed against each other as well as against the media, and instances of hate speech. In a record for recent times, Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha has filed a total of 190 defamation charges across the country. Even the Supreme Court has questioned the number of defamation cases coming from the state. While this example stands out in terms the numbers, numerous politicians across the country have filed defamation charges against their retractors.

Judicial developments

2015 saw a number of legal developments in the treatment of free speech. Perhaps the most remarkable of these was the Supreme Court striking down Section 66a of the IT act (which criminalised annoying, menacing and offensive speech) and Section 118d of the Kerala Police Act (criminalising annoying speech) on March 24 for going against the fundamental constitutional right to free speech.

Of the several cases of sedition and defamation against media persons and artists that went to the apex court this year, most rulings were in support of the free speech of the accused. But the apex court also invented a new category of restriction on the constitutional right to free speech by banning the mocking of “historically respectable personalities.”


With the rapid expansion of the domain of the internet, questions of free speech and privacy in cyberspace are increasingly important. The report lists recent developments and events in this sphere, including different companies (social media, messaging apps, email providers and search engines) and their policies on user privacy and content blocking. Facebook, for instance, has blocked certain articles in the past year, though some were unblocked upon questioning.

As highlighted by the report and its detailed listing of events, 2015 has been a turbulent year for free speech. While judicial rulings have often supported the right, threats and attacks upon those using their right are clearly visible. It is against these threats to free speech and perceived growing sense of intolerance in the country that numerous eminent authors, artists, filmmakers and poets have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in the past year, while others have come out with their dissatisfaction in different forms.

The Hoot annual free speech report for 2015 provides a context for understanding such protests through its comprehensive take on the state of the freedom of speech in India.