Friday, July 12, 2013

On the ground: In New Delhi

(This is a chapter from the latest Index on Censorship magazine, published by Sage. Links below)

From moral policing to commercialism, India has its fair share of free expression dilemmas. Mahima Kaul reports on the challenges faced by journalists, protesters and artists

As India marks its 66th year as the world’s largest democracy, it must pay more attention to freedoms it accords its citizens – particularly beyond the ballot box. Increasingly, the issue of freedom of expression, or the lack of it, has often fallen under the radar due to a range of other concerns, from corruption to poverty to communal clashes. But with a steadily growing middle class and some recent high profile cases commanding international attention, it’s clear that free expression in India is becoming increasingly important for journalists and activists, as well as for those simply wanting to voice their opinions publicly. 

The first challenge lies within the media industry itself, and the direct threat it poses to journalists. In 2012, media watchdog website the Hoot reported that 39 journalists had been either assaulted, harassed or threatened that year; five were killed. One journalist was reporting on the activities of Hindu fundamentalist groups when he was attacked, while another was shot dead covering a rape protest in the state of Manipur. Charges of sedition have been levied against journalists who upset powerful politicians and, most famously, against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who lampooned corrupt politicians in a local paper. 

However, a new trend has emerged, that of targeting the ordinary social media user who posts comments that criticise or voice active opposition to the powers that be. Indian civil society has been up in arms about the use of the loosely-worded Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (2000), which has made it possible for citizens to face arrests for status updates and even ‘liking’ someone else’s status. 

Recently, the news media has tended to function less like a watchdog of democracy and more like a commercial vehicle. The diffusion of paid news into the bloodstream of the media has made it virtually impossible for the average person to distinguish between planted stories and actual reporting. The malaise is so deep that the Election Commission of India monitors state and national elections to ensure that advertisements are clearly marked as such. In the case of television, most news channels serving communities outside of the bigger cities opt for hours of panel discussions instead of actual reporting of facts, citing, as an editor once put it, ‘the tyranny of distance’ as the reason. 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) of India is now also looking to reform the way Television Rating Points (TRPs) are measured in the country, as they feel the current system lacks credibility and accuracy. This, they hope, will lead to a better idea of what people are actually watching in India. TRAI has also recently enforced a long-ignored guideline stipulating that channels (including news channels) can only broadcast up to 12 minutes of advertising per hour. At the moment, advertisements can exceed 30 minutes within an hour’s worth of broadcasting, leading to an imbalanced media delivering customers to advertisers instead of actually delivering impartial news to citizens. Unsurprisingly perhaps, broadcasters insist they need the advertising, as it is their main source of revenue. 

Another challenge to free expression in India is disingenuous content, which limits honest and open discourse. Media observers often harshly criticise the Indian media for purposely putting forth ‘rabble rousing’ content to attract viewers. This also means that any moderate voices in these discussions are drowned out for the sake of ‘good’ TV. This trend was obvious in the aftermath of the December 2012 New Delhi rape case, which received international attention. People around the country were shocked and horrified after a young woman was gang raped on a privately-operated bus and left to die of her horrific injuries; civil society activists organised massive street protests and demanded stricter laws to protect women. News anchors on national news channels such as Times Now and Headlines Today gave prominent screen time to those who proposed death or castration as punishment for the alleged rapists, drowning out other voices that called for reform and caution against taking extreme positions. 

But one of the biggest challenges to free expression in India is society at large. There is a long, well-established tradition of moral policing for political gain. Fringe political parties across the country pick up on and adopt a number of issues, especially westernisation and modernisation, as attention-seeking tools to garner support. Shops selling Valentine’s Day cards or bars serving alcohol to young people, and even young couples enjoying a lazy afternoon in a public park, are routinely harassed by organised mobs. Some journalists, like the Mangalore-based Naveen Soorinje, have spoken out about how the media is often complicit in this vigilantism, colouring their stories in order to side with moral policing. One headline praised groups engaged in ‘rescuing’ smokers from dingy bars. 

Index has previously reported on village authorities banning women from using mobile phones on similar grounds, giving the reason that modernisation is essentially linked to immoral activities. The logic is shared by many, including a former minister who supported the move, saying, ‘What are the girls missing without mobile phones? Did our mothers and sisters die without mobiles?’ The attitude betrays an inherent suspicion of the right to freely express oneself, even over the phone.
Some Indian politicians give ample space to fringe groups, calling for censorship of books, fine art and films. The most famous example of this sort of bowing to pressure was the case of the Jaipur Literary Festival, where Salman Rushdie cancelled his appearance in 2012 because the state government could not guarantee his safety. Countless other art shows, films and books have been targeted by political groups, while the governments of the day have preferred to pander to them by cancelling events rather than vowing to keep the artists safe. For example, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues was cancelled in Mumbai in 2012 after groups protested against its adult content.
If the precious right of freedom of expression is not protected, the ultimate fallout is self-censorship. Many people, including filmmaker Ashvin Kumar, have spoken about how artists often prefer to play it safe rather than risk being targeted for challenging the status quo. This is a disturbing thought, and certainly signifies how vulnerable people feel in India. 

In a country that suffers from a range of ongoing political, social and cultural challenges, free expression is often seen as an unnecessary indulgence. But, in recent years, with some parts of the media catering specifically to the growing middle class – a group of people that, in many ways, does not have to deal with some of the problems found at other levels of society – free speech has emerged as a significant and prominent concern, a right that must be protected. Going forward, it is crucial that both the Indian government and the media find a balance between their political and financial interests and the right to free expression. 

Read the full magazine here:

1 comment:

egg style said...

On freedom of speech, let's just put it this way: the most important stuff that needs to be said CANNOT openly be said anywhere in the world (so it's not just India that is uptight). This is the role of art, saying the unsayable.

Every artist must find a way to say it in a way that it can possibly/obliquely be said, even if this means letting it open to varied interpretations (oh-oh)as a price for plausible deniability (safety).

That makes life difficult for a writer. Because if you write fiction that has an artistic aim, your work needs to be accessible to a reasonably large number of readers while also fuzzy enough to keep the truly novel part above the heads of clods.

Also, one needs to judge when such a work can find a publisher at all [and let's be frank, real freedom is rarely ever accorded to stuff that doesn't fit in]. So, no, let's not pretend freedom-of-speech is threatened only at the odd literary festival etc. There has never been much to begin with.