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.”