Speaking Volumes: Unfree – what to expect next

This week’s column will absolutely not sound the alarm on free speech and the future of India’s liberal democracy. That would be like standing up at the RK Puram intersection and announcing that the air in Delhi feels a trifle murky these days.

Instead, this column will point out gently that democracy is not an app. It wasn’t meant to be installed and uninstalled at the whims of a small ruling elite. While we’re on the subject, the Constitution was supposed to be the user’s manual for democracy, not a decorative greeting card to be waved around on 26th January and stuck in the bottom drawer the rest of the year.

The Constitution, for instance, has provisions that assume free speech is a good thing and that citizens are free to criticise the nation. Today’s ministers assume the exact opposite, saying in rapid succession that exercising your freedom of expression is tantamount to sedition, that the nation must not be questioned in the name of freedom of expression, and that the concept of freedom is not above the nation’s interest.

This is the usual preamble, in other countries, less free than India, to declaring that criticising anyone who represents the nation – hypothetically, this would extend to ruling politicians and their political parties, friends of the regime – is automatically an anti-national act.

Of course we would never hear that kind of argument in this country, which presently ranks at 133 out of 180, an amazing we’re-better-than-South-Sudan spot, in the World Press Freedom rankings. Nor would journalists be silenced and have their effigies burned in one state while another state filed over 190 defamation suits against the media and political opponents. Nor would a newspaper be summarily shut down in Kashmir a few months before a TV channel in Delhi is slapped with a one-day ban by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry.

Both the bad air and the choking of free speech are a consequence of active neglect. The drop in free expression levels comes from the broadly shared refusal among political parties to take steps that would nurture a thriving environment in which free expression, civil rights and democracy might thrive.

As with air pollution, to return to healthier and less alarming levels of free expression will require future governments to take an active approach. It won’t be enough to refrain from cracking down on the freedoms of citizens, especially the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups. It requires active political will to dismantle bad laws, put a stop to political violence, protect journalists presently at high risk for their reporting on corruption. It would take some years of continuous effort to stem the present use of nationalist rhetoric as a cover for bullying and silencing behaviour and to make it possible for the citizens with the least rights to have the loudest voice in this democracy.

The growing extent of self-censorship, by corporate media houses and individuals, would require a column to itself. At present, we are steadily becoming an illiberal democracy. Staying with the responsibility of the state, a few watchpoints from the experiences of other countries which have had similar trajectories:

Laws that invoke national security: Need to be scrutinised very carefully and rejected if the aim is to curtail the media’s ability to report on matters of national interest that affect citizen’s lives.

Examples of laws that sharply curtail either the media or the average citizen’s freedoms abound. Egypt has a ban on circulating any material that contradicts the Defence Ministry’s version of events. Venezuela’s Resorte Law obliges media houses to interrupt regular programming and carry government bulletins and news releases. China’s 2015 National Security Law includes vaguely-worded provisions that allow the government to interpret criticism from citizens as forms of subversion, or attacks on national security.

Invocations of public order and public interest: Often used as a way to justify the muzzling of the media, this can manifest also in attacks on the media for drawing attention to criminal activity, or political disturbances – blaming journalists for the acts of violence or disorder they report.

Mexico controversially stated that journalists reporting on narcotics gangs were sometimes the source of “spreading rumours” that caused a disturbance of public order, and then placed limits on the media’s ability to report on certain industries. Japan, which once gave citizens reasonable amounts of freedom, allows the government to jail bloggers and journalists for up to five years for asking about state secrets – even if they didn’t know that these were secrets, according to reports.

Culture wars and laws that seek to protect the state version of history: The intricate and fiercely fought wars over the ownership of history, from China and Japan to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, have also resulted in the freezing of public discussion of history, with more and more “wars” breaking out over textbook-writing and battles between the right and the left.

In August, Bangladesh controversially approved a draft law that would make it a crime for anyone to “distort” the history of the Liberation War of 1971 or question the official figure of those killed. The problem with these laws, as David Bergman wrote in the New York Times, is that they might serve “contemporary political interests” while choking off future dissent.

Countries do not lose – or protect – their freedoms overnight. There are recognisable phases by which the frog in the well is slowly boiled, and there is a point beyond which those fires can no longer be doused. We still have time to put them out — but only just.

(Published in the Business Standard, November 2016)






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