Number of attacks on journalists have come down, but eight scribes were killed in 2015

Use of defamation sedition popular in browbeating free speech report
Flix Free Speech Saturday, January 02, 2016 - 12:05

It has not been a good year altogether for free speech in India with the deaths of five journalists and an apparent rise in the use of defamation suits being used to browbeat free expression.

In its report for the year 2015, media watch website The Hoot said that journalists were at their “most vulnerable” with “deaths, attacks, threats and defamation cases against them at an all-time high”.

The Hoot has been releasing its Free Speech in India report since 2010, and in comparison with the last three years, 2015 has seen minor improvements which have been marred by serious threats.

Firstly, five journalists were killed in the last year in comparison with three in 2014. The number of attacks on journalists and media houses in various forms dropped from 105 in 2014 to 27 in 2015. Five journalists were arrested in 2015 up from four the previous year.

Sedition

Perhaps one of the most alarming findings is that there appears to be wide usage of certain laws to silence free speech. The Hoot found that in 26 case, sedition had been invoked in 2015 whereas the figure for 2014 was a total of five (including cases that were later withdrawn). The report said that the Law Commission had recommended in 2015, that the death penalty be done away with for all offences except terrorism and sedition, but the rise in the number of such cases was “worrying”. At present, sedition is punishable with a sentence of up to three years along with a fine.

Defamation

Secondly, defamation appears to be the law of choice with people resorting to these provisions left, right and centre. In 2014, there were only 12 cases of defamation. In 2015, the figure stood at a whopping 81.

However, The Hoot report noted that even though the number of defamation cases was high last year, the higher judiciary had generally ruled in favour of the right to freedom of speech and expression. For instance, it hauled up the Tamil Nadu government for the number of defamation cases it had filed against various media houses and journalists. The year 2015 was also the year in which the Supreme Court struck down the validity of Section 66A of the IT Act, which sought to criminalise any offensive communication.

Censorship

While other indicators such as censorship of various media – print, television, digital, feature and documentary films, music, literature, and so on – had almost halved from 85 in 2014.

The Hoot report said: “Between the Central Board of Film Certification, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Ministry of Home Affairs  a hyperactive government did more than  its share of censorship and policing.”

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