Freedom of Expression

Bad News for Free Speech in the First Three Months of 2016

A report from The Hoot calls the first quarter of 2016 “dire” for free speech, with numerous instances of sedition cases, violence, threats and censorship.

JNU students slapped with sedition charges: Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Credit: PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

JNU students slapped with sedition charges celebrating after getting bail: Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Credit: PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

New Delhi: If we thought 2015 was a bad year for free speech, the first quarter of 2016 has been nothing less than “dire”, a report from The Hoot says. The last three months have seen violence, arrests, cases filed, attacks and a death – all around the question of free speech.

Comparing the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarters of 2015 and 2014 is a good explanation for why The Hoot is worried, and thinks everyone else should be too. The organisation has also clarified that its estimates are probably “conservative figures”, and actual free speech related occurrences may be higher.

Source: The Hoot 'Free Speech in 2016: First Quarter Report'

Source: The Hoot ‘Free Speech in 2016: First Quarter Report’

Sedition

Unsurprisingly for anyone following recent events in the country, the sedition law, though deemed archaic and misused by several legal experts, has been one of the biggest tools to attack free speech with this year, the report says. Eleven fresh cases have been filed in the last three months alone, naming a total of 19 people.

The new cases include those filed against JNU students for a campus event on 9 February, DU professor SAR Geelani, politicians Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sitaram Yechury and Asaduddin Owaisi, and a man in Kerala accused of insulting a Pathankot martyr. Of these, JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, SAR Geelani and Anwar Sadiq from Kerala were arrested on the charges.

Impact on journalists

Only three months into 2016, and journalists have already faced a range of attacks. The bureau chief of Jan Sandesh Times Karun Mishra was shot dead in Sultanpur in mid-February. There have also been 14 cases of physical attacks on journalists across the country in the last three months. These include the assault on protesting journalists in Chennai, attack on journalist Revati Lal by a Gujarat riots convict, police brutality on Caravan photojournalist Rahul during a Delhi protest, attack by lawyers on journalists covering JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s bail hearing and attack on Scroll.in’s Malini Subramaniam at her home in Bastar, where the windshield of her car was smashed.

In addition to the violence, seven instances of threats to journalists have also been recorded: Asianet News anchor Sooryakumar was threatened after hosting a debate on Mahishasura Martyrdom Day, Barkha Dutt received death threats on her coverage of the JNU issue, and The Wire‘s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan was held hostage by ABVP (student wing of the BJP) members at Allahabad University.

This is not all. Journalists in Chhattisgarh have faced hounding and harassment including two arrests, to the point where several reporters have decided to leave the region and reportage from the region has significantly declined. The Hoot report also gives several other instances of threats to journalists.

Media houses and journalists have also faced defamation charges from various quarters. Seven defamation cases have been registered in total, six coming from the Tamil Nadu government and its ministers, and one from the Vidarbha Cricket Association. In 2015, the Supreme Court had questioned the number of defamation cases coming from the state in Tamil Nadu, but this does not seem to have deterred them.

Censorship

Various kinds of censorship have been seen in the last three months, from a range of sources.

For example, the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), which operates under the Ministry of Human Resources Development, has introduced a form “which requires authors of books NCPUL acquires annually to declare that the content will not be against the government or the country.”

In other instances, ‘Comedy Nights’ actor Kiku Sharda was arrested, bailed out and then re-arrested for mimicking Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in Haryana, and the participation of Pakistani poet Abbas Tabish at the Ajmer Literature Festival was cancelled after right-wing groups warned of protests. The programme was called ‘Shayari: Sarhad ke Par’ (Poetry beyond Borders).

There have also been numerous cases of electronic censorship, the report says, eight in the last three months. Google, for instance, blocked the Jammu and Kashmir government’s email accounts, affecting the flow of information. A man in West Bengal was arrested for his Facebook post against an unnamed Trinamool Congress leader, and internet services were blocked in parts of Haryana during the Jat agitations, so as to “not spread rumours”.

Judicial interventions

The courts have spoken out both for and against free speech since the beginning of this year. The Supreme Court’s stay on the UP assembly’s proceedings in a privilege notice against two TV channels, and their journalists and management, has been labelled a “heartening development” by the report. However, it then goes on to say that the same court upheld the banning of mobile internet under the Criminal Penal Code, though the petitioners had argued that mobile internet was only governed by a special law like the Telegraph Act.

The Hoot‘s report and its summary of free speech violations provides a larger context to recent happenings in the country, and shows how incidents are not occurring in isolation. And if the rest of the year is going to go the same way as the first three months, perhaps the reporting is pointing to a long year ahead.