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Freedom Of Speech And Expression In India Under Fire

Article 19 of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression along with certain restrictions. These restrictions include state security, defamation, public order, morality and decency, contempt of court, sovereignty and integrity of India, incitement to offence and friendly relations with foreign states. It is one of the most important fundamental rights in the interest of upholding the democratic values of India.

However, various means have been exercised by the Government of India to curb this freedom from time to time since the enforcement of the Constitution on January 26, 1950. Such curbs have risen since 2014 after the election of Shri Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India

One of the most notable examples concerning the bar on free speech is the imposition of restrictions upon the freedom of the press by charging journalists and dissenters for sedition under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1860. Such instances were rife before the intervention of the Supreme Court of India to stay the proceedings on cases relating to sedition.

The Emergency declared on June 25, 1975, by Smt. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India also led to the curtailment of the freedom of speech and expression in India resulting in constraints on the freedom of the press in India. In addition to sedition, journalists and activists questioning the Government or actively protesting against the decisions of the Government have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 2019.

Freedom of the press has been compromised to a considerable extent due to the misuse of the Act of 2019. Charges of defamation and contempt of court have also been leveled against the journalists critical of the Government. Furthermore, journalists involved in coverage of protests against the government have also been stringently dealt with

A major section of Indian media has today become the mouthpiece of the Government. Fear is its main tool for overall modus operandi that has resulted in the spreading of hate amongst Indian citizens through mass propaganda, to the extent of exemplifying that the freedom of the press is slowly being extinguished. During elections, most of the journalists belonging to India's mainstream media target the political parties that oppose the Government of India and its allies across India.

The Reporters Sans Fronti�res (Reporters Without Borders) has ranked India 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2022. Journalists and media personnel raising questions against the Government mainly through various digital platforms are often subjected to violent acts which include not only the brutality of the police but also the attacks launched by various agencies with political backup, especially the ones connected with the Government and its allies.

Such journalists and media personnel have also been attacked online, particularly in the form of campaigns launched through social media, in addition to being threatened on the phone. As a result, the Information Technology Act of 2000 and the Information Technology Rules of 2021 are misused against critics of the government, particularly journalists. Frequent shutting down of the internet by the Government of India has also impeded journalists to gather relevant information and publish their work online.

The workstations of journalists criticising the Government have also been raided by the authorities of the Government. Therefore, harassment of journalists and activists in India critical of the Government of India and its allies is skyrocketing which massively undermines press freedom and further leads to the making a mockery of free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution.

The arrest of the co-founder of the fact-checking website AltNews Muhammad Zubair allegedly on grounds of attacking religious sentiments under sections 153A and 295 of IPC signifies the silencing of journalists questioning the Government of India and its allies. Such kind of arrest for flagging hate speech also showcases arbitrariness as Zubair tweeted the video of expelled Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nupur Sharma for making disparaging remarks against Prophet Muhammad. Additional reasons for Zubair's arrest include a photo tweeted in 2018 relating to the 1983 Bollywood film Kissi Se Na Kehna allegedly demeaning religious values, although approved by the censor board.

Earlier, freelance journalist Mandeep Punia was arrested for reporting on the farmers protesting against draconian farm bills to be passed by the Parliament. He also encountered abuse by the police both verbally and physically. Journalists covering the underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in India by the Government have also been harassed.

Such observations are made from the instances related to the barring of posts by social media regarding the COVID-19 crisis in India as instructed by the Government. Such censorship not only curtails freedom of speech and expression but also promotes the presentation of fake data. Killings and imprisonment of journalists in India are also on the rise. The assassination of journalist-cum-activist Gauri Lankesh massively comprises the freedom of the press in India.

Additionally, the imprisonment of Siddique Kappan for attempting to report on the incident relating to the rape and murder of a young Dalit lady in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh is a huge threat to India's press freedom. Furthermore, the shooting of Subhash Kumar Mahato by an unidentified gunman for reporting on the local sand and liquor mafia in Bihar also massively endangers the free press in India.

The hate propaganda orchestrated by India's mainstream media today is quite similar to the role played by Rwanda's national radio station Radio Rwanda along with Radio T�l�vision Libre des Mille Collines (Free Radio and Television of the Thousand Miles) in the early 1990s. Such a role involved the spreading of misinformation that the existence of Hutus in Rwanda is under threat. It simply served Rwanda's Hutu government under the Presidency of Juv�nal Habyarimana. As a result, it led to the mass killings of Tutsis, along with those Hutus who were moderate in the genocide during the Rwandan Civil War.

The closure of the Kashmir Press Club along with the harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists and reporters in Kashmir by the police and paramilitary forces critically endangers free speech and expression in India. Such kinds of instances have risen after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

The rejection of a film script by India's Ministry of Defence portraying the life of Major J Suresh, a gay gentleman who left the Indian Army also curbs freedom of speech and expression. Such curbs are understood not only from Article 19 of the Constitution of India but also from the judgement delivered by the Supreme Court in the case of Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India.

Major J Suresh quit the Indian Army due to the restrictions imposed upon the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community to serve in the Armed Forces of India under Sections 45 and 46 of the Army and Air Force Acts of 1950 and Sections 53, 54 and 74 of the Navy Act of 1957 and it was difficult for him to conceal his homosexuality for a prolonged period. Disappointment over the rejection of such a film script has been expressed not only by Onir, the director of the film but also by Major J Suresh.

The Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill of 2021, if enacted, would empower the Government of India to invalidate the certification of a film, even after approval from the Censor Board. Such a move facilitates the imposition of more restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression. Illogical film censorship has already been battled by Bollywood in an earlier instance through litigation.

It is recommended that the authorities such as the Press Council of India and the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre should take the necessary steps to make sure that the freedom of the press in India is not hugely compromised. Additionally, the undertaking of punitive measures against the mainstream media channels and digital media platforms engaging in hate propaganda and defamation is also suggested. Such actions would prevent the possibility of triggering violent tensions or conflicts amongst communities in India.

Furthermore, providing adequate protection to journalists and activists questioning the Government of India and its allies through Article 21 of the Constitution of India would ensure press freedom in India. It would further result in the safety of such journalists and activists. The relaxation of laws relating to censorship would also remove curbs on freedom of speech and expression.

Award Winning Article Is Written By: Mr.Deepayan Acharya
Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: AU222019004902-8-0822

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