India's problem with freedom of speech

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 03, 2013 20:44 hrs

To those with a statistical bent of mind, India's recent problems with freedom of speech seem now reflected in a major international indicator. India has fallen sharply, by as much as nine places, in Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index for 2013. 

The country now occupies a rank of 140 out of 179 nations, its lowest since 2002.

In fact, the decline has been quite steady for a number of years, which indicates a trend. 

It is, of course, possible to quarrel with this ranking, which differs with the annual list put out by Freedom House, the older US-based organisation. In the latter's table for 2012, India figures at the 80th position in a list of 197, and well within the top half of the table. Both the rankings put the Nordic countries at the top of the league but, as is to be expected, 

Freedom House ranks the United States ahead of Britain, whereas the World Press Freedom Index does the opposite. Even if things are not as bad as they may appear from a ranking in a league table that is affected by statistical assumptions, it is increasingly clear that India has a problem with freedom of expression. 

Its laws are excessively draconian when it comes to certain aspects of control — the Rules of the Information Technology Act, for example. Other laws, even long-standing provisions of the Indian Penal Code, depend crucially on local interpretations of dangerous speech by individual police station house officers — who have little incentive to err on the side of freedom rather than control. 

As the case of Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literature Festival showed, it is unrealistic to expect local police officers to engage intensely with complicated points when they are offered the option of simply shutting down the free exercise of expression. 

Professor Nandy, who expressed a complex theory poorly, was forced by the presence of policemen into backing away from his point rather than elucidating it properly. In the process, not only has Professor Nandy's speech been constrained, but also those who would wish to engage with him or disagree with what he had to say have been constricted. 

Using the power of the state to restrict speech means that, instead, the conversation turns to the antecedents and respectability of the person being restricted, and their right to express themselves. In the process, actual conversation about the frequently controversial points that they have raised is cut off. 

This attenuates and constricts India's public debate; and this process must end. A reflexive cycle of control by the state and single-minded defence by well-connected civil society distorts the public sphere beyond recognition. Justice J S Verma has just finished a magisterial review of India's laws on crimes against women, and how they are applied. 

If the United Progressive Alliance government is willing to recognise that the problems with the constriction of free speech are now beginning to flare up more worryingly, it is time for a similar committee to look into what the state can do to protect unpopular or minority views.

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