Free Speech in 2011: A Hoot Report

BY FSH| IN Media Freedom | 30/12/2011
For the media, 2011 was marked by the killings of journalists, major censorship and surveillance issues, far-reaching legislation, limits on online media freedom and more.
The Hoot~s FREE SPEECH HUB takes an look. Pix credit: Mehraj, Kashmir Wala.

The brutally fatal silencing of three journalists along with the sharp rise in censorship of content in online media and the increasing cases of defamation marked the deterioration of the climate for free speech across India in 2011. Attacks on journalists continued to be high, with 24 recorded instances even as writers, journalists and lawyers bore the brunt of the intolerance of vigilante groups to dissenting opinion.

The Free Speech Hub, which has been monitoring the state of freedom of expression in India since 2010 as part of a project of the media watch site The Hoot, has recorded at least 27 instances of censorship of content across media and at least ten of these instances related to online content!

In its report for 2010, the Free Speech Hub had stated that the stage was set for increasing surveillance, monitoring of electronic communication, issues related to privacy and defamation. As if to confirm this foreboding, the record for 2011 reveals two cases of sedition – that of the arrest of Marathi magazine editor Sudhir Dhawale in January and the complaint in June, of a BBC journalist charged with spreading disaffection and at least eight cases of defamation against journalists or writers and at least eight cases of defamation against journalists or writers.

Surveillance and electronic interception of mail or of other electronic communication, phone tapping – including that of activists of the anti-nuclear agitation in Jaitapur – continued unabated.

While Union Information and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal’s remarks onpre-screening of online content in social media did create a furore, it was obvious that censorship of online content was already a reality – In April, an RTI response to a query of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) revealed that 11 websites had been blocked and by December,  complaints about the content in 21 websites and social networking sites like Google and Facebook had been filed in court with the demand that the sites be blocked.

Now, with court cases against websites and social networking sites slated to come up in January 2012, the arena for free speech battles may have temporarily shifted to the courtroom but freedom of expression – both virtual and otherwise – is at peril everywhere. 

Other cases of censorship related to film – at least eight instances through the year;  two cases each related to television content, books (including academic texts), print and radio. There was also one related to theater, which pointed to a broader issue of attempts at censorship—the case in September when a Hindu group protested against a play on the late artist M.F. Husain. Vigilante groups kept up their campaign against the artist even after his death. However, their protests did not stop the play.

While police in Maharashtra have arrested ten persons, including a journalist, in connection with the murder of J Dey in May, there has been little or no progress in investigations in two of the three deaths of journalists – Umesh Rajput of Chhattisgarh in January and Ramesh Singhla in New Delhi in October. Police are yet to establish a credible motive for the killing of Dey, who was Mid-Day’s special investigations editor and who wrote extensively about the oil mafia and the underworld. Rajput, who worked with ‘Nai Dunia’, was threatened by a doctor for a report he filed on a medical negligence case that resulted in the death of an Adivasi woman while Singla, a freelancer, wrote a number of reports on illegal mining.

Attacks on journalists and writers continued with impunity throughout the year, despite a marginal decrease in the number of instances since 2010. This year, there were 24 instances of attacks on journalists while lawyer Prashant Bhushan was attacked by a pro-Hindu group for his views on Kashmir, even as television cameras rolled!

From Kashmir to Kerala, the cases of attacks on journalists have included the assault on a photographer of Hindustan Times in Srinagar in March, and the attack on journalists covering Dalit-Adivasi protests in Bhubaneswar, Orrissa in the same month. Journalists were roughed upin Kerala, media offices were vandalized in the month of May in Arunachal Pradesh, a photographer was beaten up by a constable in the same month in Mumbai, and also in May, a Goa mining company’s securitymanhandled a journalist in south Goa. In August, a journalist was assaulted by Army personnel in Assam.

The state’s response to these attacks has been uniformly poor and indifferent. In Kashmir, when police beat up photojournalists, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah expressed some regret only after journalists protested and mused that the journalists should wear distinctive clothing that would mark them out and thus avoid the police baton!

Defamation

That the intolerance thermometer has risen is obvious also in the increasing number of defamation cases, with eight cases being registered in 2011. In March, Jaya issued legal notices to three media organizations and the Indian Institute for Planning and Management (IIPM) filed a Rs. 500 million lawsuit against ‘The Caravan’. In July, a defamation suit was filed against Times of India and activists for a pollution story. In August, a defamation case against the editor-in-chief of an Assamese channel was registered. Also, Times Now sent alegal notice to The Hoot. Ad man Suhel Seth was also sued by ITC for Rs.200 crore over his Tweets, and Congress –I MP Shashi Tharoor filed a defamation suit against a magazine. Additionally, a Goa paper had filed a case against a whistleblower journalist in a “paid news” story.

Curbs on the media

With direct censorship on the rise, five instances of curbs and restrictions on the media were recorded, including the restrictions on airing riot footage on the day of the Godhra verdict while free movement of journalists was restricted in Chhattisgarh. Besides, Photojournalists were summoned over taking pictures of the president on a beach in Goa, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee banned journalists from the Writers’ VIP zone. Furthermore, the Union Home Ministry withheld advertisements to Kashmiri newspapers. 

The judiciary and freedom of expression

There have been 12 court orders on cases related to media freedom in 2011. The year began with a columnist sentenced to six months in jail for a casteist article in January. In May, a case was filed against Togadia for ‘inflammatory’ speech and the Supreme Court lifted a gag order on former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh’s phone intercepts.  In September, a journalist was booked under the Arms Act, and the Delhi High Court upheld the I&B’s notice for ‘Sach Ka Saamna’. In November, the Supreme Court gave no relief for Times Now in a libel case, and a High Court judged that anti-nuclear activists should not be restrained. 

Policy/Legislation

The year was also marked with increasing pronouncements and posturing on free speech. Apart from the furore caused by the Press Council Chairman Justice Markendeya Katju’s caustic remarks on the media, the notification of more rules under the amended Information Technology Act that personal data could be accessed, amendments to print media law and new television policy guidelines were also on the anvil.

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