It is a familiar tale. State censors in this huge Asian country crack down on websites with no explanation. Citizens’ ability to share information is subject to draconian restrictions. But this is not China, a country where we have grown wearily used to heavy handed censorship. This is India.
To be fair, this blunt summary does not do justice to the complexity of the issue. This month, curbs on the internet and texting were imposed because of a doubtless well-meaning intention to prevent communal violence. Thousands of north-easterners were fleeing the southern high-tech hub of Bangalore after inflammatory rumours spread across the internet about Hindu-Muslim violence. The exodus followed violence in the north-eastern state of Assam between Muslim settlers and native Bodos, who are mostly Hindus, in which nearly 80 people died and 400,000 were displaced.
Given India’s tragic record of communal violence, it may sometimes be reasonable to curb free speech to prevent it. No country has absolute freedom of expression. Even the most liberal nations impose limits relating to slander, copyright infringement or incitement to commit a crime.
Indian authorities, however, have invited criticism because of the clumsy way in which they clamped down. The government told internet companies, including Facebook and Google, to close more than 300 websites, some of which were relatively harmless. An initial instruction limiting SMS messages to just five was unnecessarily sweeping. Little by way of explanation was forthcoming.
India’s freedom of speech is precious. Authorities should limit it only as a last resort and even then with much greater precision and transparency than they demonstrated this month. They should also define more carefully just what is to be controlled. The distinction should be between what produces offence and what causes harm. Inciting violence against one community or religious group passes the harm test. Criticising a community does not.
There is a broader, even more important question. More than protection from hate on the internet, Indians want to be safe from real-life violence. A lack of trust in the state to protect communities makes what appears in blogs and text messages more dangerous. Upholding the rule of law on the streets is more important than policing the internet. If all Indians felt safer, they could be more relaxed about what goes on in cyberspace.