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Saturday, January 21, 2006

How free is India, supposedly the biggest democracy in the world?

The self-image of most of us in India is that we have freedom of speech and freedom of press. But in reality, things are much worse than meet the eye.

A simple litmus test is the scoring of `Freedom of Speech' in countries of the world, done by Freedom House. It gives India a score of 38 and a status of "Partly Free". We are a clear notch below the better-run countries of the world. We do better than China, but we're behind South Africa.

What is going wrong? A host of intrusions on freedom can be identified. The Freedom House URL above mentions:

  • The Official Secrets Act as a tool for censorship,
  • Intimidation of journalists including murder and physical violence,
  • State actions to stop advertising in Kashmir Observer,
  • The State monopoly on AM radio transmission,
  • The ban on FM transmission of news,
  • The very existence of Doordarshan,
  • The political slants of a number of TV channels,
  • The periodic bans upon books such as those that point out that Mr. Shivaji was more brigand than hero.

It adds up to quite a picture of infractions of freedom of speech. Is that a comprehensive list, or are there other violations? I can think of some others. The Indian government covered itself with shame in the episode where Yahoo Groups access within India was shut down because of one mailing list which disagreed with GOI. The State has a big role in the satellites through which TV broadcasting is done in India. The State has barriers against foreign newspapers.

Freedom is built out of a million small battles. One of these was acted out recently, when the State tried to place restrictions on the content that an Indian newspaper could carry, which was sourced from outside the country. This was challenged in the Delhi High Court, which struck down these restrictions as being incompatible with the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution.

That's great news! Does this mean someone can legally challenge the ban on FM stations broadcasting news?

Normally, we think that the proliferation of new technology makes it harder and harder to supress knowledge. But as China has demonstrated, electronic media are vulnerable to control, perhaps more so than physical paper was. Yahoo and Microsoft have both betrayed individuals in China, to curry favour with the State. Ila Patnaik had a nice article in Indian Express, on the freedom of speech issues associated with `Direct To Home' TV. As she says, in the case of newspapers, we know and rejoice in the fact that the State does not run newspapers, nor does it run printing presses. But in the electronic media, we accept Doordarshan, and the State has a near-monopoly on printing presses (satellites).

I find the widespread acceptance of Doordarshan and AIR -- government owned media -- to be really disappointing. Compare and contrast against the experience with the US `information' agencies, Voice of America and Worldnet Television. They are explicitly prohibited from broadcasting on US soil. As far back as 1948, lawmakers in the US clearly understood that control of a radio station in the hands of the existing administration distorts the next elections.

Things are bad in India on the related question of civil liberties also. The recent din and fury about phone tapping could hopefully take us to a state where phone tapping is made much harder. At present, violations of privacy are endemic. A friend of mine told me a story where there was a woman who suspected her husband was having an affair. She called the phone company and -- purely by talking with them on telephone -- got them to give all kinds of information about his phone records, and (worse) about his physical location on various dates. It could be that anyone armed with minor skills in social engineering, could call your telco on phone and discuss your movements and phone calls. Scary!! This links up to the civil liberties concerns abut Mapin. On a related note, Robert Cringely has an excellent article today about phone tapping in the US.

Update: Tapping phones might become slightly harder. And, my respect for The Times of India just went up a few notches when it appears that their Patna edition carried the famous cartoons. But this blogger claims that in India, this is illegal.

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