India’s IT laws do have the potential to quash free speech, but equally massive right-wing mobilisation on the Net which attacks any dissent as “anti national” also has the power to drive free speech out of social media. Censorship is abhorrent. So is abuse of freedom. Fomenting communal polarisation and disseminating extremist agendas on social media must be brought before the law and perpetrators punished. Free speech in India is not an absolute right.
JUST SAY IT?
Journalists, politicians, public speakers are expected to abide by the definition of free speech as given in Article 19 of the Constitution. To argue that the laws that apply to the mainstream media on free speech do not apply to social media is a recipe for irresponsibility that will only invite the heavy hand of government regulation. Social media cannot after all reject the dictum, “be you the ever so high, law is above you.”
However this is not to say that India’s IT laws are either intelligent or democratic. According to Section 66 A of the IT Act, if any content is considered ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘of menacing character’, or causing ‘inconvenience, annoyance, danger, obstruction or insult’, the police can prosecute the perpetrator, who, if found guilty can be imprisoned for upto 3 years. 66A is far too vague, can easily become a weapon of state repression and must immediately be redefined if not scrapped altogether. Who is to judge what is “grossly offensive” or “causing inconvenience, annoyance, danger, obstruction or insult?”
An artist’s cartoons or sharply critical commentary on powerful politicians, the freedom to debate all issues without fear, these freedoms are essential pillars of democracy. To jeopardise democratic freedoms is not only against the spirit of the Indian constitution but also imperils the idea of India as a haven of pluralist and free thought. Social media has exploded the distance between the ruler and ruled and taken away the mystique of authority and celebrity: this is a refreshing new cultural shift which is both empowering and a force of accountability.
The arrest of Shaheen Dhadha and her friend Rini Srinivasan in Palghar in November was an outrageous attempt by the police, acting on the complaint of a local Shiv Sena unit, to silence free opinion by an application of the stringent 295 (a) IPC, widely referred to as India’s blasphemy law. The arrest of a Net user for comments on Union Minister of Finance P Chidambaram’s son Karti was another example of official excess. IT laws should not protect VIPs. Yet in August, when thousands of North-Easterners began to flee Bangalore and Pune due to rumour mongering on social media and SMS, the government explained its crackdown on the Net and the blocking of 250 web pages, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, as an attempt to maintain public order.
DRAW THE LINE
Where does the
between censorship and maintaining public order lie? At the time of the North East exodus from metros, it was argued that the government’s clampdown on the Internet was not about free speech vs censorship or about dissenters vs the ruling regime. Rather it was a public safety issue that affected thousands. In an emergency where public safety is directly at stake, I believe that all stakeholders must step a little away from the free speech paradigm. How are democratic values best upheld? By accepting that freedom is not licence, and liberty does not come without responsibility. The freedom that the mainstream media has is the freedom to be a responsible press. In the same way, the freedom available online surely does not extend to fomenting religious hatred, spreading defamatory campaigns or vilifiying racial minorities. India’s IT rules thus need to be nuanced, clearly and expertly defined in tune with constitutional values and above all intelligently applied. At the moment, IT laws are being used by the ham-handed authoritarian government machine to clamp down on opinions based on complaints by vested interests. Instead, the laws need to be used sparingly but shrewdly to safeguard dissent but punish hatespeak.
From HT Brunch, December 30
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