Monday, April 15, 2013

The big issues for Indian web users

Some of India’s most prominant internet writers, researchers and policy analysts came together in Bangalore on 9 April to discuss “Strengthening Freedom of Expression on the Internet in India”, organised by the Internet Democracy Project.

The subject has been intermittently making headlines in India, with a number of politically motivated arrests made under the Information Technology Act’s controversial Section 66a. Causing more confusion, in 2011, the Minister for Communications & Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, made headlines by asking social media intermediaries to take down “objectionable” content.

At the time, the content in question seemed to be mainly objectionable to to the government itself. The content in question seemed to be mainly objectionable to the government alone.
This caused a huge public uproar, and since then Sibal has exercised more caution, though still maintaining that “the country must have an enabling framework — rules and regulations must not come in the way of the growth of the net.”

As well as Index on Censorship, the roundtable in Bangalore brought together a number of actors, including analysts from social media giants Facebook and Google, as well as, Wikimedia India Foundation, Medianama, Digital Empowerment Foundation, Open Governance India, Knowledge Commons, Alternative Law Forum, Center for Internet and Society, Tactical Tech, researchers from IIM Bangalore and Aziz Premji University. Journalists from The Hindu, Hindustan Times, DNA and smaller media organisations like Oorvani Media, Mahiti and The Alternative also took part in the debate.

The overall discussion centered around a few key issues, the first being whether the law “protects” free speech as it stands today. Many of those present felt that while Section 66a of The Information Technology Act 2000, which protects against “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will…” has been misused in the past, it needs to be examined from different angles, such as protecting women from online abuse.

While some writers have outright rejected this argument, the Internet Democracy Project released a draft paper on the subject. In it, they revealed that women think of the internet — social media — as “the street” where they can be taunted and abused in a similar manner to real life. In fact, drawing on the experiences of writer Meena Kandasamy and singer Chinmayi Sripada, who have faced violent abuse on social networks, the panel discussed ways to fend off misogyny that did not involve the law. These included using humour, blocking people, ignoring the comments, and even asking or waiting for others to come to your defence.

Interestingly, many women who were questioned for the study revealed that they prefer not to go to their families to report the abuse, for fear that they would be told to stop spending so much time online. The women and their families also said they had little confidence in going to the police with the same complaints.

This led the panel to discuss beyond the validity of the law — and question the role and capacity of the police in enforcing controversial measures like Section 66a. Some felt that 95 per cent of police on the front lines were not even aware of free speech issues, or the law in question, while others believed that police reforms are the way forward.

Some were unsure if they wanted the police to be tech savvy in the future, suggesting that it could lead to more arrests than there are today. It was agreed that there needs to be more research on the law as it functions today, to understand the crucial role the police will play in upholding it, particularly regarding the role the judiciary currently plays.

The question of defamation was also raised, with some panelists believing that there needs to be a distinction between those who have a small number of followers versus those who have a large following. Can the punishment be the same, if the effect of their status update or tweet is not?
Other discussions assessed challenges to freedom of speech at state level rather than national level and whether or not the mainstream media is forcefully supportive of free speech on the internet. The panelists debated the issue of anonyminity, and whether it is the cause or the solution to some of the free speech issues we see today.

An issue was raised surrounding how internet users are not a core constituency for the government right now; a fact reflected in the budget of the Ministry of Information and Technology, which chooses to focus areas such as computer hardware.

Another question circulating the room was whether strict laws such as Section 66a were designed with the intention to shape the internet a certain way, so that future users simply fall into line. The government’s perspective on the internet’s purposes was also explored, examining whether the National Broadband Network, currently being laid out to connect rural India, was viewed simply as a delivery service platform or for two-way communication.

Two questions that prompted considerable debate were “what is the role — actual or desired — of non legal actors such as intermediaries, pressure groups; the public at large” and “what non-legal strategies can we develop to protect free speech and who should implement such strategies?”

Some suggestions were to try out a “naming and shaming” site or Tumblr account for hate speech, although there were doubts as to how effective it would be. Other panelists advised that intermediaries could reveal more data that could save the government from taking drastic measures — for example, if a certain video was not being heavily viewed from within India, then the government would not feel the need to censor/block a website as it does now.

It was clear that civil society members and even the intermediaries are grappling with the same questions as the government. While a section of Indian society is firmly opposed to laws like Section 66a, there are discussion platforms to help understand how to operate within the constraints of the law.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

India: Kumar versus the censor

Despite making two award-winning documentaries, filmmaker Ashvin Kumar has faced difficulty having his films shown. Mahima Kaul reports on his battle with India’s Censor Board

Indian filmmaker Ashvin Kumar is in a curious position. His documentary, Inshallah Kashmir, recently won this year’s India’s National Award for “Best Investigative Film”. Kumar also won the 2012 National Award for “Best Film on Social Issues”, for his documentary Inshallah Football. Despite the press and adulation he has received, Kumar is still struggling to have his films screened on TV. Even the public service broadcaster refuses to air his films as they have received an “A” (Adult) certificate — a “polite” form of censorship, as Kumar told Index.

Kumar’s story begins in Kashmir, the backdrop for both of his films. His first film, tracking the journey of young footballers trying to arrange visas to attend a tournament in Spain, exposed raw nerves within Kashmiri society. What should be a simple process for any talented footballer became an ordeal for one young boy, who was refused a visa for having a surrendered militant for a father. Out of this story came Kumar’s next documentary, a raw and in-depth look at the Kashmiri people, including those who participated in militancy against the Indian government in the 1990s.

When Kumar applied to the Censor Board to approve Inshallah Football in 2010, his application got rejected outright, despite an early indication that he would get approval. This, after he had been assured by the Board that certification was only a formality at this point. In 2011, the Censor Board eventually awarded Kumar’s film Adult (A) certification. Confused, Kumar filed a RTI (Right to Information) request and was told that the Board felt the characters were not authentic. The board also felt Kumar’s film was too critical of the government.

What bothers Kumar is the “quasi ban” that results from the A-certificate, a decision normally reserved for feature films with gross violence and nudity. The film, which amazingly went from censored by the government to being honoured by it, can’t be shown on TV because of its alleged adult content. At the time Kumar stated in an extremely frank interview:
“The cynical view is that they are now trying to come across as more equal and liberal than they are. Some other filmmakers I’ve spoken to said this is exactly what they do. They first ban it, and then when they see that public opinion is not working in favour, they give it a National Award. I hope we got the National Award on the merit of the film and not because of political reasons.”
Worried that his next venture would be met with the same fate, especially since Inshallah Kashmir deals directly with militancy and its fallouts in Kashmir, Kumar decided to release it online for one day, 26 January 2012, India’s Republic Day. At the moment, the film has both an “A” certification and despite its honour from the government, it still cannot be aired on TV. Kumar has now put the film online for free.

The exchanges with the Censor Board has made Kumar and others question both its role and its intentions. Many filmmakers feel that the censor board’s excessive and unnecessary interference has resulted in “pre-censorship” for filmmakers. Kumar told Index that, as a result, he feels like movies from this generation will not reflect today’s realities, and because of censorship “we are losing precious documentation of where we are as a civilisation.”

An online petition to “Save Indie Cinema” is challenging this status quo. The petition, which includes some of India’s most respected names in film, is trying to draw attention to the fact that indie cinema is being marginalised by both the government and distributors. They feel the government should budget for exhibition space for smaller movies, and even A-rated movies should be screened by the public broadcaster, albeit at a later time at night. The other complaint is that some of India’s biggest blockbusters, shown freely on both state and private channels, get “U” (universal) ratings by the Censor Board, despite containing violence and vulgarity. And distributors often relegate indie films to awkward showtimes, therefore sidelining them.

Perhaps as a response to this, the government has recently announced that  National Award winning films will be broadcast on Doordarshan, an Indian public broadcaster. They also added that they will consider screening them in commercial theaters.

For Kumar, this is a moment for cautious joy. “I hope this is true,” he wrote on Facebook about the news.