India: chipping away at free speech

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Opponents of free speech in India racked up another victory on Monday when Google acknowledged that it had removed “objectionable” material from its Indian web sites in response to a court order.

The censorship was related to an ongoing case brought against Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other websites after telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal (left) had met with representatives of the sites to discuss the pre-emptive removal of what the government deemed “objectionable” material. That included blasphemous material and also, reportedly, sites that criticised, among other things, the leader of Sibal’s Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi.

The sites have appealed for the dismissal of two court cases currently pending against them – both of which accuse the companies, in one way or another, of publishing material that could offend religious or societal sentiments – on the grounds, echoed by most internet experts, that curating social media in real time is impossible.

While Google issued a statement saying it had removed material deemed to harm religious sentiments “in accordance with Google’s longstanding policy of responding to court orders” – and the material will still be accessible outside of India – the episode is the latest in a series of attacks on free speech that has some questioning whether India is living up to its title as “the world’s largest democracy”.

One of those is Indian-born author Salman Rushdie, who last month had to cancel his trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival, held in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, after Muslim clerics threatened protest and violence if he should appear before the estimated crowd of 120,000.

The clerics cited Rushdie’s authorship of The Satanic Verses, which caused an uproar upon its publication in 1988 when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the writer’s assassination for blasphemy, sending him into hiding for years. India, for its part, had banned the book even before Khomeini’s bounty.

But, while the book is still not available in India, Rushdie has visited the country multiple times in the last few years, including to speak at the 2007 Jaipur Literature Festival, with little controversy.

The difference: in 2007, the Congress-led government was not facing key regional elections in, among other places, India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims form a key voting block and elections begin on Wednesday.

And so, according to the NYT, the Rajasthan government voiced doubts about its ability to provide adequate security for Rushdie, while the national government made no public guarantees of his safety.

Rushdie cancelled, and last week, Bangaldeshi-born author Talsima Nasreen was forced to cancel the launch of the seventh volume of her autobiography at the Kolkata Book Fair, again because of the threat of protest from Muslim clerics. The Economic Times wrote that the incident would “go down as another instance of Indian authorities and parties kowtowing before religious rabblerousers”.

But it isn’t just those who offend the religious that the government is targeting. Also last week, in a move described by India Today as “smack[ing] of an attempt to smother press freedom”, the Indian government banned journalists of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation from receiving visas.

As a Ministry of External Affairs official explained to the magazine, “The stated purpose when [the Danish] journalists applied for a visa the last time was to make a documentary, but they ended up producing a reality show based on India. The series depicted all sorts of things, including life in our slums.”

The series the official refers to, according to India Today, is “Blod, Sved & T-shirts”, which ran on the channel in 2010. A similar show aired on the BBC in 2008, and involves a group of young people brought to India to experience how high fashion garments are made in poor working environment.

Whether it is material deemed objectionable to the pious or the patriotic, with its government-sanctioned cases against Google, Facebook and other sites – and one judge’s threat that if the sites do not take down vaguely defined “objectionable material”, “like China, we will block all such websites” – India is proving itself hardly a great example of free speech.

Related reading:
Salman and the speech assassins
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Twitter bows to pressure over censorship
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India internet: clean-up or censorship?

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