India records 134 counts of free speech violation in four months: Report

According to the report, hate speech, especially from ‘star ’campaigners like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saw little or no action from the significantly weakened Election Commission of India.
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Free Speech Collective, an organisation that monitors violations of free speech in India, has published a report compiling and analysing free speech violations over the past four months in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. The report noted that there have been 134 counts of violations including crackdown on journalists, academics, and YouTubers. Attacks, threats, and defamation cases on journalists, censorship of media, academia, entertainment, news media, social media, harassment of media, lawfare against media, and internet control were some of the parameters the Collective used to track the violations. 

The report said, “Free speech in India has sunk into a perilous abyss and steadily falling press freedom indices underscore the dangers of crossing a line that is becoming increasingly contentious. While this report did not track hate crimes, it must be noted that hate speech, especially from ‘star ’campaigners like Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw little or no action from the significantly weakened Election Commission of India, despite widespread public condemnation and the filing of official complaints.” 

Uttarakhand topped the list with most free speech violations with 10 instances, followed by Maharashtra (nine). Meanwhile, Haryana had the highest number of internet shutdowns due to the farmers’ protest followed by Punjab and Manipur. Manipur, however, had the longest duration of internet shutdown from May to December 2023, with shutdowns continuing to be intermittently imposed.

Delving into the attack on journalists, the report discovered that 34 journalists were attacked in the period of four months. Five journalists have been arrested since the beginning of 2024 and three were granted bail.  Kashmir journalist Aasif Sultan, in custody since 2018, was re-arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) four days after being granted bail in earlier cases. 

The report also noted that there were 46 counts of censorship spanning across mediums like entertainment, social media, academia, and news media. However, it also noted that the figure could be an understatement as a single instance could result in the blocking of several accounts. It read, “For instance, the discussion online around the time of the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in January, resulted in the blocking of more than a hundred social media accounts. The trend continued the next month with the protest of farmers in Haryana. At least 177 social media accounts and web links were blocked, on the orders of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on February 14 and 19 at the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs under section 69A of the IT Act.” 

In terms of entertainment, movies like Monkey Man have not been certified to release in the country despite a worldwide release in April. The report mentioned that this could be because of the overt political nature of its content. 

Academia has not fared too well either, according to the report. There were 24 counts of free speech violations in the academic space, further facilitated by “vigilante groups” online and offline. The report mentions an example of a school Principal in Mumbai being targeted for liking tweets in support of Palestine. Apart from that, there were also attacks on students for screening documentaries like Ram ke Naam, which questioned the need to construct a temple in Ayodhya, during the temple’s consecration in January. 

The report added, “The screening of the documentary [Ram ke Naam]  was cited as one of the reasons for the two-year suspension and debarring of PhD scholar Ramadas KS, from all campuses of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on April 18. The general secretary of the Progressive Students Forum (PSF), Ramadas was punished for ostensibly “anti national” activities, such as participating in a protest march against the Central government’s education policies in January 2024.” TISS further issued a notice forbidding students from organising protests, screening, online viewing of seminars, conduction workshops, meetings affiliated to politicians on the campus until the conclusion of elections. 

Read: TISS students say Dalit PhD scholar Ramadas was targeted for his anti-BJP politics

News media was also subjected to censorship irrespective of language and the platform. For instance, the magazine Caravan was asked to remove their article titled Screams from the Army Post: The Indian Army’s torture and murder of civilians in a restive Jammu’ by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). Hindi YouTube channels like Bolta Hindustani, National Dastak got emails from YouTube regarding a notice issued by the MIB for their channels to be blocked. 

The government also wanted to place regulatory mechanisms to oversee the dissemination of information, especially on the internet. On April 4, 2024, the MIB constituted a ten-member committee of bureaucrats to “delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable for print and electronic media.”

The report said that there are openly partisan sections of dominant media that echo a dangerous divide while independent media is under threat. It added, “A dangerous portent, with print and electronic media teetering between partisan advocacy and self-censorship, the last remaining space for informing the electorate may soon be completely eroded. The recorded data on free speech issues clearly shows that while openly partisan sections of dominant media echo a dangerously divisive agenda with impunity, independent media faces punitive action and struggles to be heard.” 

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