Media Releases

PEN and IHRP report on India reveals culture of stifling dissent, criminalising free expression

September 19, 2016

Toron­to, ON – An inef­fi­cient legal sys­tem and what amounts to unchecked abuse of vague and over­broad leg­is­la­tion have con­tributed to a chill­ing effect on free speech with­in India’s soci­ety and through­out its pub­lic sphere accord­ing to a report released today by PEN Inter­na­tion­al, PEN Cana­da and Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Pro­gram (IHRP) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Fac­ul­ty of Law. The report, Fear­ful Silence: The Chill on India’s Pub­lic Sphere, demon­strates how a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of aggriev­ed cit­i­zens can suc­cess­ful­ly deter many oth­ers from speak­ing out on sen­si­tive issues, there­by endan­ger­ing India’s key demo­c­ra­t­ic free­doms.

The report is an update to PEN’s 2015 report, Impos­ing Silence: The Use of India’s Laws to Sup­press Free Speech, which detailed ways in which intol­er­ant indi­vid­u­als and groups have used vague­ly word­ed laws and a cum­ber­some legal sys­tem to silence their oppo­nents. A year on, the update paints a sober­ing pic­ture for the state of free expres­sion in India today, reveal­ing that a grow­ing cul­ture of intol­er­ance linked to a ris­ing nation­al­ist dis­course has tak­en root in the coun­try and has become more men­ac­ing since Naren­dra Modi became Prime Min­is­ter in 2014, cre­at­ing an atmos­phere in which ‘vig­i­lan­tism has been giv­en an implic­it go-ahead’.

‘Fight­ing for jus­tice is anti-nation­al, fight­ing for minori­ties is anti-nation­al, rais­ing issues of inad­e­quate jurispru­dence by the Supreme Court is anti-nation­al, so basi­cal­ly any ques­tion­ing is anti-nation­al,’ said local jour­nal­ist Teesta Setal­vad of the rise in nation­al­ist rhetoric and its use to sup­press free speech.

The report, which is the result of inter­views con­duct­ed with authors, activists, jour­nal­ists, film-mak­ers and lawyers in Jaipur, Hubli and Del­hi ear­li­er this year, focus­es on cas­es of film cen­sor­ship, intim­i­da­tion of writ­ers and jour­nal­ists, the arbi­trary use of the law and online harass­ment. Although free­dom of expres­sion is pro­tect­ed under the Indi­an Con­sti­tu­tion and inter­na­tion­al treaties to which India is a State Par­ty, anti­quat­ed laws passed dur­ing the colo­nial era, such as sedi­tion, and laws crim­i­nal­is­ing defama­tion and those per­tain­ing to hate speech are used to restrict free­dom of expres­sion.

Since the pub­li­ca­tion of Impos­ing Silence, such laws and pro­vi­sions have con­sis­tent­ly been used to tar­get indi­vid­u­als and groups. In Feb­ru­ary 2016, for exam­ple, police arrest­ed Kan­haiya Kumar, Pres­i­dent of Jawa­har­lal Nehru Uni­ver­si­ty Stu­dent Union, on charges of sedi­tion, for alleged­ly shout­ing ‘anti-nation­al slo­gans’ at a ral­ly to com­mem­o­rate the anniver­sary of the exe­cu­tion of a Kash­miri sep­a­ratist.  Four days after his arrest, Kumar and sev­er­al jour­nal­ists who were cov­er­ing his tri­al were assault­ed by a group that includ­ed lawyers and a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment belong­ing to the country’s rul­ing par­ty.

The mes­sage is clear: Vio­lence in the name of ultra-nation­al­ism is accept­able. Not even the courts are safe spaces. Chal­lenge the state, or the B.J.P., at your per­il.’ — Nilan­jana Roy, lawyer, author and mem­ber of PEN Del­hi.

The space for free speech in India’s pub­lic sphere is shrink­ing. A cli­mate of online harass­ment threat­ens to silence crit­i­cal voic­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly those of minori­ties and women. Pro­posed changes to the Infor­ma­tion Tech­nol­o­gy Act, incor­po­rat­ing over­broad pro­vi­sions of the penal code, threat­en online speech. A cul­ture of self-cen­sor­ship born out of the fear of reprisals is grow­ing, and vex­a­tious and ground­less tri­als against authors, jour­nal­ists, and artists are erod­ing the prin­ci­ple of free speech. The report con­cludes with a set of rec­om­men­da­tions for urgent reform to pre­vent fur­ther abus­es and a call for the pro­tec­tion of free expres­sion in the world’s largest democ­ra­cy.

Read the full report here.

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For press queries please con­tact:

Evan Rankin at IHRP and Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Pro­gram (IHRP) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Fac­ul­ty of Law:

Bren­dan de Caires at PEN Cana­da | | 416 703 8448 x 21

Sahar Halaimzai at PEN Inter­na­tion­al: | 00 44 7514139606