For India, a Year of Shrinking Freedom of Speech

The Hoot's annual report on freedom of speech takes a comprehensive look at the sad state of affairs in India when it comes to press freedoms or societal freedom.

As we get further into 2017, freedom of expression, press freedom, online freedom and personal freedoms continue to be a centre of debate in India. Unfortunately, as the news website and media watchdog The Hoot notes in its 2017 annual report, over the last 16 months there has been a sense of shrinking liberty in the subcontinent. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, The Hoot takes a look at how the nation has fared in terms of these freedoms and the abundant instances of sedition, defamation, hate speech and censorship, all in the larger context of societal freedom.

Attacks on journalists 

According to the report, 54 journalists have come under attack in the last 16 months, through 2016 and the first quarter of 2017. The actual number is probably much more, if a revelation by the minister of state for home affairs that there were 142 journalist deaths during 2014-15 is anything to go by. The World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders has placed India at the 136th position, three places down from its position the year before.

Of the seven journalist deaths over the period being studied, only one has been confirmed as caused by their reportage. What the stories behind each attack clearly bring to the fore is that journalism, specially investigative reporting, is increasingly becoming a dangerous occupation. Whether it is sand mining, stone quarrying, illegal construction, police brutality or any kind of corruption, the ones who bring the murky truth to light often end up fearing for their lives. Even those who host chat shows from the safety of the studio come under attack and receive threats.

The Hoot has found that the perpetrators of this kind of violence are usually politicians, vigilante groups, police and security forces, lawyers and sometimes mafia and criminal groups. But with the kind of influence they wield, the sponsors of this violence as well as their goons get away scot-free most of the time, even when their identities are known.

News censorship

If the increasing attacks on journalists is worrisome, so is the fact that the state wields a strict baton when it comes to news that may not be to their liking. The Andhra Pradesh-based Sakshi TV discovered to their surprise that their outspoken coverage of the Kapu agitation – led by a former minister – left their channel blocked in the state. Other media channels which averted their eyes or reported the issue cautiously were left untouched, The Hoot reports.

Andhra is not the only state to have used these means of censorship. In Kashmir, after Burhan Wani’s killing, the media was harassed and censored, with two of the largest newspaper offices raided and printing presses shut down. The Kashmir Reader, which was doing on ground reporting of the situation in the Valley found itself labelled anti-national and banned for three months. On the other hand, NDTV – which came under fire for its coverage of the Pathankot operation which allegedly revealed strategic secrets – was handed a 24-hour ban by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), which was later overturned by the Supreme Court. A health channel, which was also handed a ban by the MIB approached the Bombay high court, which said that “the order was completely illegal and a breach of the elementary principles of natural justice. It also brought up the issue that the government’s power in this regard needed to be re-examined.

In March 2017, Rajeev Chandrashekhar had two articles published by The Wire taken down after approaching a Bangalore court, alleging defamation and had a lawsuit sent to them.

Buckling to mounting pressure, NDTV decided to self-censor its discussions and coverage of the surgical strikes in October 2016. The editorial director of the TV channel, Sonia Singh, sent out an email to the organisation that also put out the decision that “national security cannot be compromised by politics”, leading to an interview done by Barkha Dutt with Congress leader P. Chidambaram being dropped from the evening news.

According to The Hoot, the internet was shut down 31 times in India in 2016, and 14 times already in 2017. These internet shutdowns take place under Section 14 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), despite questions of the constitutional validity of such actions and who the power lies with.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Resolution on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity on 18 December 2013 and condemned unequivocally all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers. The Resolution also proclaimed 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Credit: UNESCO

Freedom of speech

In 2016, the courts were constantly tested on the topic of freedom of expression. It was also a year in which cases of sedition, defamation and censorship of films and other arts reached record numbers. Numerous conflicts arose during the past of this year as the struggle continued between one’s right to free speech and one’s right to take offence.

The year saw the Supreme Court uphold the criminal defamation law, stating that “Right to free speech is not absolute. It does not mean freedom to hurt another’s reputation which is protected under Article 21 of the constitution”, arousing widespread dismay as attempts to decriminalise defamation reached a standstill. However, the same year, the apex court clarified that criticism of the government could not constitute defamation, squashing the late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa’s multiple cases of defamation against the media.

As is now widely known and spoken about, sedition cases went viral in 2016 – beginning with the JNU incident – with The Hoot reporting a total of 40 such cases filed in the entire year. In 2017, five cases have been already been filed so far going by media reports, in Assam, Bihar, Punjab (on 66 students which was subsequently dropped), Haryana and Delhi.

The loss of right to information 

The last year dealt a blow to the Whistleblower’s Protection Act, with the proposal that the request of an RTI seeker will become nullified with her death. This was obviously seen as a dismaying proposition in a situation where vulnerability of RTI activists has already increased. In this regard, Maharashtra ranks high, with the most number of RTI seekers as well as the most number of deaths of RTI activists, the most recent taking place on April 11 in Pune.

In a weakening of the landmark RTI Act, The Wire reported that as of April 1, 2016, the number of second appeals and complaints stood at 34,982 cases, while other data shows that a large number of rejections happen under the category of “others”, with four out of every ten RTI application being rejected were for reasons apart from those permitted by the RTI Act.

Censorship of the arts

The Central Board of Film Certification’s ban on films such as Lipstick Under My Burkha, Ka Bodyscapes and censorship of others like Padmavati, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Udta Punjab and others have made news in the last year. Data show that out of all the films that came to the CBFC for certification, 30 were censored or banned for various reasons, The Hoot reported. While the CBFC has been the main perpetrator of the censorshipof the film industry, censorship occurred in other aspects of art as well, with the Udaipur Film Festival, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s concert and several plays coming under the axe. The main culprits remain political organisations, cultural and religious groups and professional bodies.

A few triumphs

Though the picture on the whole is dark, it’s not as if there is no good news at all, The Hoot says. In a heartening turn of events, the apex court stayed proceedings initiated by the UP legislative assembly against two journalists of the TV Today group alleged guilty of breach of privilege of two UP ministers. Senior advocate Soli Sorabjee stated unequivocally that the UP assembly did not have the power to appear before it since it did not pertain to a matter of the assembly. According to The Hoot, this was an important test case in whether media exposing a legislator’s actions outside the assembly can attract a charge of breach of privilege.

Small victories came in the arena of community censorship of arts when a division bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul overturned the demand for a ban on Perumal Murugan’s 2015 novel Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman).

2016 also saw the Supreme Court directing the Bihar government to transfer a politician and the main accused in the murder of journalist Rajdeo Ranjan, to Tihar Jail from a district jail in Siwan, to facilitate his trial.

The Hoot’s annual free speech report provides a comprehensive summary and a context for understanding the loss of freedom of speech in India and the small but rising protests and movements, highlighting people’s refusal to go along with their rights being snatched away.