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Climate for Free Speech Severely Deteriorated Under Modi Govt: PEN International

PEN International said in an official statement that it “calls on the Indian authorities to protect its writers, journalists and all others exercising their right to free expression” and to “bring its legislation in line with its obligations under international law”.

New Delhi: Global writers’ body PEN International, while releasing its annual “Freedom of Expression Report” at the end of its 84th Congress held in Pune between September 25 and 29, said that the “climate for free expression has severely deteriorated in India in the last few years” under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government.

Remembering slain journalist Gauri Lankesh, PEN International said in an official statement that it “calls on the Indian authorities to protect its writers, journalists and all others exercising their right to free expression” and to “bring its legislation in line with its obligations under international law”.

Every year, PEN International prepares a report on the country where the Congress is held. A report on India, which “outlines how dissenting voices, be they journalists, writers, academics or students, face intimidation, harassment, prosecution, online abuse and physical violence”, was released Saturday.

The 15-page report on India is damning when it comes to freedom of speech in India under the BJP government at the Centre. It includes essays penned by Raksha Kumar, Gautam Bhatia, Apoorvanand and Nlilanjana Roy, and points to how “the climate of fear” has extended itself to “some campuses too, where student activism is curbed, professors are not being invited, textbooks withdrawn, and academic freedom is under threat”.

“Silencing the media through violent means signals the breakdown of a functioning democracy,” the report reads. One portion addresses online abuse: “In the past couple of years in India, habitual abusers online have given up the cloak of anonymity. On the contrary, their Twitter bios proudly proclaim that they are followed by the prime minister of the country, suggesting their confidence that they can act with impunity”.

Giving examples of how women are targeted online, particularly those who are “outspoken”, the report gives the example of how journalist Rana Ayyub was targeted online over a fake tweet. Despite being harassed for weeks, the report says, there has been real progress in the case. “Female journalists are trolled for their controversial opinions, but some female journalists are trolled simply because they speak up.”

“Unless the cycle of impunity is broken, those who want to use violence to silence will be embolden to do so,” PEN International president and American-Mexican writer Jennifer Clement said, while honouring Gauri Lankesh. “Even though we welcome the progress that has been made in the investigation, we are still waiting for justice,” Clement said.

Lankesh was shot dead outside her house in Bengaluru on September 5, 2017. The Karnataka police has arrested some members of a right-wing group for allegedly conspiring to kill her.

“The report illustrates the varied ways in which critical voices are targeted and silenced. It highlights directed attacks online and offline; the systematic stifling of academic research and freedom; and the continued marginalisation of and hostility towards women’s voices.”

“Laws that stifle speech; an environment hostile to dissenting views; and emboldened critics online and in the real world have cast a chill over free expression in India,” said Salil Tripathi, the writers in prison committee chair.

“We have quite a few recommendations to the Indian government. To ensure the safety of journalists and make sure that there is no impunity against them, to ensure that they are not harmed, as has been seen in several high-profile cases, train the police, launch public information campaign to inform citizens of their legal rights in the face of online harassment and threats,” Clement told IANS.

Notably, of PEN’s new vice presidents, chosen for their “literary merit”, two are dissenting voices from India: Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who was himself hounded by right-wing activists, and Nayantara Sahgal, who has been at the forefront of protests by writers and intellectuals against the Modi government.

In August, after several rights activists and lawyers were arrested, PEN Delhi had condemned the Pune police’s actions: “It is a dark day for India when crackdowns and arrests target those who fight for human rights, while murderers such as those who killed journalists, thinkers and writers, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh are yet to be convicted.”

(With inputs from PTI)

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