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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

Censorship in the India: Why The World's Largest Democracy Isn't So Free

When Reporters Without Borders released their yearly Press Freedom Index in 2015, India retained its 136th place in the bottom quartile of the 180 countries ranked. The world’s largest democracy falls behind most in terms of media liberty.

The 19th article of India’s Constitution guarantees both freedom of speech and freedom of profession, but it does not explicitly provide for freedom of the press. Historically, the courts have protected media liberty, but the current government does not seem to fully support that notion. Effectively limiting free speech, in 2000 the legislature passed the sedition law, which forbids speech that may incite “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” towards the Indian government. Furthermore, the 2000 Information Technology Act gave the government the ability to block anything online when it is in the “national interest”. Lack of free speech in India has become a major topic of interest in light of these laws. The real issue may be two-fold: a repressive government could be suppressing unfriendly press, but the corruption could also originate within the media organizations themselves. As a most prominent example, Mukesh Ambani, owner of India’s largest media outlet, is known to be intolerant towards critical journalism, and he has urged staff to provide favorable coverage of right wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi during recent elections.

However, journalists in India face a constant threat of bodily harm and death, but these incidents have been surrounded by a disturbing lack of investigation when brought to the attention of the government. In August, rationalist scholar M.M. Kalburgi was shot dead at his home for speaking out against superstition and the religious nature of the Indian government. In February, Govind Pansare – also a rationalist – was shot and later died of his injuries. The police were worryingly slow in their pursuit of any suspects. These examples illustrate a larger trend: in India, when it comes to anti-establishment speech, police protection is nearly nonexistent. When deaths do happen, they face a slow and reticent criminal justice system.

On top of protection and enforcement issues, the government itself directly silences journalists. In April 2003, The Hindu ran two articles criticizing Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s expelling and jailing opposition members from the legislature. In response, the minister filed 17 criminal defamation cases and ordered 5 senior editors of the newspaper to be jailed for a short period of time. In April 2012, Jadavpur Univeristy professor Ambikesh Mohapatra was arrested for sharing a cartoon of Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, on Facebook. In September 2012, police beat up Azhar Kadri, a reporter for the Kashmir Tribune covering a protest in Srinagar. Contrary to Article 19’s guarantee of free speech, activists and reporters in India routinely find themselves intimidated and silenced by intolerant citizens and their government. Real protections are nearly nonexistent and repercussions for attacking critical journalists are severely inadequate. The oppressive media climate in the country suppresses the most critical part of democracy - freedom of expression and a free press. ​

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