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India debates limits to freedom of expression

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NEW DELHI — From Google to Facebook, from world-famous author Salman Rushdie to a little-known political cartoonist, it has become increasingly easy in recent months to offend the Indian government, and to incur the wrath of the censor or even the threat of legal action.

In the world’s largest democracy, many Indians say freedom of expression is under attack, and along with it the values of pluralism and tolerance that have bound this nation of 1.2 billion people together since independence from Britain more than 64 years ago.

India’s democracy is nothing if not raucous. The huge array of newspapers and 24-hour television news channels are often vociferous in their criticism of politicians. But the media’s determination to root out corruption in the past two years has prompted a backlash. Talk of more stringent regulation is mounting.

At the same time, artists say their creative freedom has been steadily eroded. Even Jay Leno managed to offend Indian Sikhs — and prompt an official government complaint — with a satirical reference to their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in a joke about Mitt Romney’s vacation homes.

At fault, many say, is a thin-skinned government that gives in to the demands of violent mobs, ostensibly to make political gains but in fact to suppress its critics.

“For a country that takes great pride in its democracy and history of free speech, the present situation is troubling,” said Nilanjana Roy, a columnist and literary critic. “Especially in the creative sphere, the last two decades have been progressively intolerant.”

Targeting authors, artists

Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” was banned in India in 1988, was forced to cancel appearances at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month after threats of violence from Muslim groups and a warning about a possible assassination attempt — information he said was probably fabricated by authorities to keep him away.

Wary of alienating Muslim voters in ongoing state elections, not a single Indian politician spoke out in favor of Rushdie’s right to be heard.

Last month, the screening of a documentary on Kashmir was canceled at a college in the city of Pune after right-wing Hindus objected, and an artist was beaten in his gallery in Delhi for showing nude paintings of actresses and models that his attackers claimed were an insult to the country.

The release of the latest book by Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen was canceled in Kolkata after Muslims protested, and Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year-old political cartoonist, was charged with treason and insulting India’s national emblems in drawings inspired by activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement.

But perhaps the most shocking episode for advocates of freedom of expression has been the government’s attempt to muzzle Facebook and Google — and prosecute the companies’ executives — for content posted on their sites deemed to be offensive. “Like China, we can block all such Web sites,” warned the judge hearing the case in the Delhi High Court.

The government cites images insulting to one or another of India’s religions, content it says could provoke unrest. It is up to social media sites, the government says, to manually screen and censor all potentially offensive content or face prosecution.

“No freedom can be absolute,” said the chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju. “The hold of religion is very strong in India, and you have to respect that. You can’t go insulting people.”

Katju’s concerns are perhaps understandable in a country whose birth was scarred by the mass murder of Hindus and Muslims at the time of independence in 1947. But the effect, critics say, is to give the mob the power of veto and take away a fundamental right in a free society: the right to offend others.

Sunil Abraham at the Center for Internet and Society says the government’s proposals on Web censorship would kill the vibrancy of the Internet in India. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales warned that they would scare off investors and crush the country’s potential to become a true leader in the Internet industry.

The irony, according to critics, is that the concern over religiously offensive content was little more than an excuse: What appears to have really offended the ruling Congress party were defamatory images of their idolized leader, Sonia Gandhi.

“The myth that is spread is that the government is acting against hate speech and obscenity. But when the government acts to control information on the Internet, it is usually defamatory or potentially defamatory content against people and politicians,” Abraham said.

Almost a year ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the media were undermining the nation’s self-confidence by harping on official corruption. Since then, talk of tighter media regulation has grown louder.

And despite the vibrancy of India’s mainstream English-language media, the country’s ranking on the press freedom index of the journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has dropped, from 105th in 2009 to 131st last year.

An optimistic view

Arnab Goswami, the editor and anchor of the Times Now television channel, points to television’s dramatic success in exposing official corruption in the past two years to argue that there is plenty to be optimistic about.

Courts in India generally have a better record than do politicians of defending freedom of expression. And there are people in government, including Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni, determined to resist the temptation to take a harder line.

“The pressure was enormous, to control the media, to clamp down on the media,” she said. “But I did withstand the pressure.”

Soni said she sees self-regulation by the media rather than official regulation as the way forward. She maintains that, for example, the debate about Rushdie has not necessarily done India any harm.

“That’s the strength of Indian society,” she said. “You have discussed it, everyone has had their say on the matter, the government has had its share of criticism, yet we’ve moved on.”

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