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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > June 2011 > Death of Democracy in India, Birth of Censorship

Death of Democracy in India, Birth of Censorship

Wednesday 1 June 2011, by Wendy Papakostandini

“What are we, Saudi Arabia?” asks Pushkar Raj, the general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in India. He adds, “We don’t expect this from India. This is something very serious.” What Pushkar Raj refers to is the newly passed, highly controversial cyber law issued by India’s Department of Information Technology this past April that restricts what content can be posted or made available to the public on the internet. Free speech advocates argue that these new rules are just excuses for the government to expand censorship in the country and further limit the rights to freedom of speech and expression that are guaranteed by the Constitution to the citizens of India.

These new cyber rules give the government and ordinary citizens the power to remove information that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophiliac, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever” [1] among many others. With the enactment of these new rules, popular sites like YouTube and Facebook must remove content deemed offensive in the span of thirty-six hours, and such sites may soon be blocked all together.

What makes the rules so controversial is the unclear, loose wording that makes them susceptible for abuse and misuse. What material constitutes as “grossly harmful” for example, and who decides what is “grossly harmful” and what is permissible? Due to the unspecific wording, almost anything can be labelled “grossly harmful.” These new rules are very much open to interpretation and the fear is that this flexibility will be misused, or used to suppress opposing views and opinions against the government. With social uprisings currently underway throughout Northern Africa, significantly aided by social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, these new laws could be one way in which the government attempts prevention of a similar uprising in India.

With a booming population of 1.21 billion [2], India is undoubtedly the world’s largest democracy. Freedom of speech is often considered one of the main pillars of what defines a democratic country and India’s constitution clearly states that every citizen in India “shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.” [3] However, these new laws bring freedom of speech into question. How democratic can a country be when its constitution promises one thing, but the specific laws and amendments enforce another? How constitutional are new cyber laws when they are in essence, limiting freedom of speech? When did democracy go from rule of the people, to rule of the minority in power?

Many claim that the new restrictions enacted this April will turn free speech for all in India into censorship for all. The new legislation makes it much easier for the government to quell uprisings or protests, for instance if state officials make claims of “harassment.” Furthermore, the government can suppress unwanted information about its actions since government officials can claim “invasion of privacy” or deem something as “hateful.”

In response to the huge wave of criticisms, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in India defended these new rules by stating that “due diligence practices are the best practices followed internationally by well-known mega corporations operating on the Internet.” The ministry added that “the Government remains fully committed to freedom of speech and expression and the citizen’s rights in this regard.” [4] However, the statement failed to include possible safeguards against misuse or abuse by the government officials, or the government itself.

In a speech earlier this month, President Obama stated that the United States will “support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. [They] will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger. In the Twenty-first Century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.”5 Although his speech was directed to the nations of North Africa and the Middle East, it applies to all nations, including India. India must address the questions of its public concerning the misuse of the new cyber restrictions and the implications it could have on their freedom of speech and expression. India must find a way to achieve the essential goals of the new cyber rules. Furthermore, it must do this without violating the liberties guaranteed to citizens by the constitution. This democratic doctrine is a symbol of India’s independence, so tumultuously achieved in 1950, and must be adhered to.