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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Freedom of speech in India

Shekhar Gupta's column in the Indian Express today is about the incipient threats faced by freedom of speech in India.

In this ranking for 2009, by Reporters without Borders, India's freedom of press comes in at rank 106 out of 175 countries (top 60th percentile). We're in the company of Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Guatemala and Oman. Ouch! (In 2002, we were slightly worse: we were in the top 56th percentile). If you'd like to think about how this can be made better, an ideal starting point is their questionnaire.

There is a great piece by Donald Morrison on the Dreyfus Affair in the Financial Times. I often wonder whether India has the depth of commitment to human rights and liberal values to be able to achieve a similar outcome. At present, I'm not convinced. As Norman Mailer said: Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it. At present, in India, I don't see that bunch of people who care about freedom and will safeguard it.

Authoritarianism vs. the Internet by Daniel Calingaert goes into the ways in which the Net increases freedom, and the way governments are fighting back. I got nervous when I read this description about some of the things that repressive regimes do:
Users are required to register with an ISP when they purchase internet access at home or at work, so that they cannot operate online anonymously. Customers at cybercafes have to present identification, and cybercafes install software to monitor and filter customers' web browsing. In Vietnam, cybercafe owners are required to keep a record for 30 days of all the websites their customers visit.
Do we do similar things in India?

The article by Calingaert led me on to this measurement of the freedom on the Internet in 15 countries by Freedom House. Their score shows:

RankCountryMeasure of repression
1 Estonia 10
2 UK 20
3 South Africa    21
4 Brazil 26
5 Kenya 31
6 India 34
7 Georgia 40
8 Malaysia 40
9 Turkey 40
10 Egypt 45
11 Russia 51
12 Iran 74
13 China 78
14 Tunisia 78
15 Cuba 90

I've seen the following pattern repeatedly: In measures of governance quality, India looks good when compared with China and Russia. So two of the BRIC countries really have a system of governance which is not comparable with that found in India. Far more interesting are the BSST countries -- Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and Taiwan -- which are democracies much like India, and have a lot of things done right in governance which India should learn from.


  1. Do we do similar things in India?

    The cyber cafe near my home (Delhi NCR) required a copy of my PAN card to open a user account. I believe ID cards have been required in most cyber cafes after the 2008 series of terrorist attacks.

    Monitoring software could be used by cyber cafes for nefarious reasons so safeguards where possible are anyway recommended (using online virtual keyboards, etc).

    Some blogs are abuzz with the freedom of speech issue recently. Came across this recent post: Philip Pullman on free speech

    In Rajdeep Sardesai's recent
    it was very surprising to hear him say:

    "Where once the media thrived on its anti-establishment image, a number of influential journalists are now footsoldiers of the political class. Facts have been replaced by propaganda even as the creeping power of the public relations machine threatens the core of journalism. Unfortunately, the changing nature of the politician-journalist relationship means that the space for independent journalism that can hold the politician accountable is shrinking. Access is now strictly regulated, determined not by professional integrity, but individual loyalties. Asking uncomfortable questions of our netas, or expressing a strong opinion is confused with media hyper-activism, or worse, bias. "

    So not only do we have to worry about 1) laws being passed restricting privacy (and there are a couple of efforts underway specifically on the Internet privacy issue) but also 2) being in an uneven developed country where freedom of speech is not appreciated/understood by large swathes of people, 3) politicians capturing media.

    India's record perhaps could be better. Someone being offended seems to be a valid reason to shut someone up. The US first amendment is bullet proof in the sense that it disallows creating any future law which would infringe on Freedom of speech. But India's law allows restrictions if "necessary".

    I spent over an hour earlier today watching Hitchens debate Tharoor on the freedom of speech issue (it was primarily about the Islamic extremism issue is Europe, Danish cartoon controversy, etc). Hitchens is a fascinating person to say the least.

  2. yes..ids at cyber cafe are a mandatory was strictly enforced after the mumbai attacks..i was in kolkata then and getting into a cyber cafe without id was all but impossible.
    i dont know how seriously is it being implemented now (havent been to a cyber cafe recently).

    for the record of is relatively easy to trace. and it is always used when one is trying to determine what was someone using the computer for..


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