-Tanya Singla, National Law University, Delhi.
The citizens of India have grown accustomed to the lip service of politicians who promise to provide their voters an uninterrupted supply of water and electricity every five years or so.
These promises are made with great fervour but sadly, they are meant to be forgotten once the elections are over. The politicians have now begun to extend this “time-tested practice” to constitutional freedoms, particularly the freedom of speech and expression, with impunity.
[quote]On National Press Day this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a sanguine commitment to “complete independence of the media from external control”. The latent farce of this commitment is revealed in the Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju’s highly publicized opinion about the irresponsibility of the media, wherein he dismisses “self-regulation” by the press as an oxymoron.[/quote]
Prima facie, the freedom that the social media offers to connect, access information, comment and participate in conversations, gives the impression of being above policing and publication censorship. But the recent clampdown on users of the social media who sought to exercise this freedom only proves that the government seeks to curtail civil liberties under the pretext of legal provisions.
Cyberspace and the social media, which should be the equivalent of the public square where people meet and exchange views irrespective of caste, creed and class, are instead becoming the more prohibited zones for freedom of expression. The by-now infamous Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act would have been a joke if it did not pose such dire consequences for the common man, who unwittingly runs afoul of the law. This was a lesson that Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan learnt the hard way when they were arrested for the questioning the shutdown of Mumbai following the death of the Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray in a Facebook status update. Due to public outcry, the charges were dropped against them but instances of legal intimidation on part of the government like this are meant to silence the critics who effectively express dissent. At the same time, it seeks to induce fear in the vast majority of other users such that they are compelled to opt for self-censorship, muffling their voices in order to avoid the price they will have to pay in the form of arrest and punishment.
The growing tendency towards imposing curbs on freedom on the Net and the freedom of the press within the country has not escaped international scrutiny. India has dropped nine places to 140 among 179 countries in the 2013 Press Freedom Index and is placed in the ‘Partly Free’ category below Ethiopia, Morrocco, Tunisia and Indonesia. So much for the world’s largest democracy.
[highlight]It is not suggested that the State and media are mutually adversarial. But we must not forget that in the institution of democracy, the protection of the rule of law is all the media must seek and merit, not state patronage.[/highlight]