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Writers and human rights experts call on India to repeal laws that threaten free expression in world’s largest democracy

May 26, 2015

Writers and human rights experts call on India to repeal laws that threaten free expression in world’s largest democracy

Toron­to, ON – Ear­li­er this year, India’s Min­istry of Home Affairs used an exten­sive arse­nal of vague and over­broad laws to muz­zle the world’s largest envi­ron­men­tal watch­dog, Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al.  Using seem­ing­ly innocu­ous pro­vi­sions in the Indi­an For­eign Con­tri­bu­tion (Reg­u­la­tion) Act 2010, the gov­ern­ment effec­tive­ly silenced crit­i­cism of a con­tro­ver­sial nuclear pow­er plant by freez­ing the bank account of Green­peace India.  Offi­cials jus­ti­fied their actions on the basis that Green­peace was a “threat to nation­al eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty.”

In a ground-break­ing new report, PEN Inter­na­tion­al in part­ner­ship with PEN Cana­da and the Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Pro­gram (IHRP) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Fac­ul­ty of Law, call on India to repeal over­broad and vague­ly word­ed laws that enable cen­sor­ship in the world’s largest democ­ra­cy.

Impos­ing Silence: The Use of India’s Laws to Sup­press Free Speech finds that over­reach­ing leg­is­la­tion and long­stand­ing prob­lems with the admin­is­tra­tion of jus­tice have pro­duced cum­ber­some legal process­es that deter cit­i­zens from exer­cis­ing their right to free expres­sion. The result­ing chill silences polit­i­cal crit­i­cism and often dis­cour­ages mar­gin­al voic­es from speak­ing out on sen­si­tive social, cul­tur­al, and reli­gious mat­ters.

The report fea­tures orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions from promi­nent Indi­an writ­ers tack­ling issues from free speech online and in film; to cen­sor­ship by mobs that threat­en vio­lence, file law­suits in dis­tant local courts, and demand that the state pros­e­cute writ­ers and jour­nal­ists. Arund­hati Roy, who was charged with sedi­tion over com­ments on Kash­mir, and who was inter­viewed for the report, laments the chill­ing effect that cen­sor­ship laws have on free expres­sion: ‘The most fright­en­ing thing is that any mad coot can go and lodge a com­plaint against you. It’s a seri­ous amount of harass­ment.’

The report doc­u­ments many vio­la­tions of the right to free expres­sion since Prime Min­is­ter Modi’s inau­gu­ra­tion one year ago this month. Dur­ing his first year in office, PM Modi has vis­it­ed 14 coun­tries, most recent­ly Cana­da, to pro­mote increased trade and invest­ment, but has con­sis­tent­ly failed to address human rights con­cerns. Indeed, when held to account at the Unit­ed Nations, India has con­sis­tent­ly down­played the seri­ous­ness of free­dom of expres­sion issues and avoid­ed reforms that would bring its Con­sti­tu­tion and cen­sor­ship laws in line with its inter­na­tion­al oblig­a­tions.

Impos­ing Silence focus­es on the legal and reg­u­la­to­ry envi­ron­ment that facil­i­tates cen­sor­ship pre­cise­ly because this is an area where the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is poised to show lead­er­ship, and includes a num­ber of tar­get­ed rec­om­men­da­tions that chart a path for­ward towards freer expres­sion in India.  ‘India’s Supreme Court has just struck down a vague law that crim­i­nal­ized offen­sive online con­tent.’ said Mar­i­an Bots­ford Fras­er, Chair of PEN International’s Writ­ers in Prison Com­mit­tee. ‘We hope this report will help the gov­ern­ment and courts fur­ther review laws that silence dis­sent, and move for­ward with the nec­es­sary repeals and reforms.’

‘Vague and over­broad laws that are eas­i­ly abused run con­trary to India’s inter­na­tion­al human rights  oblig­a­tions,’ said Renu Mand­hane, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the IHRP. ‘For­tu­nate­ly, many of the legal issues that restrict free speech in India could be resolved quick­ly, and rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive­ly, if there is suf­fi­cient polit­i­cal will to do so.’

‘Urgent reforms are need­ed to pre­vent fur­ther abus­es,’ said Tasleem Thawar, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of PEN Cana­da, ‘for although vex­a­tious law­suits often fail, or are with­drawn, the cur­rent sys­tem allows legal pro­ceed­ings to linger for so long that they near­ly always suc­ceed in silenc­ing crit­i­cal speech and dis­suad­ing oth­ers from speak­ing out.’

The Pres­i­dent of PEN Inter­na­tion­al, John Ral­ston Saul, notes ‘India’s fail­ure to pro­tect speech is espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant, as the nation rep­re­sents one sixth of human­i­ty, and is an emerg­ing pow­er in the region.’ PEN Inter­na­tion­al and its part­ners expect to trav­el to India to meet with law­mak­ers pri­or to India’s Uni­ver­sal Peri­od­ic Review by the UN Human Rights Coun­cil in 2017.
For more infor­ma­tion and to sched­ule inter­views, please con­tact:
Bren­dan de Caires: | t. +1 416 703 8448 x21

Avail­able for inter­view:
Renu Mand­hane, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, IHRP
Tasleem Thawar, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, PEN Cana­da
Salil Tri­pathi, writer and con­trib­u­tor
Mar­i­an Bots­ford Fras­er, Chair of PEN International’s Writ­ers in Prison Com­mit­tee

Ann Har­ri­son, Pro­gramme Direc­tor, Writ­ers in Prison Com­mit­tee, PEN Inter­na­tion­al

The report is avail­able online at:
Social Media: #PEN­Re­portIn­dia

PEN Inter­na­tion­al cel­e­brates lit­er­a­ture and pro­motes free­dom of expres­sion. Found­ed in 1921, our glob­al com­mu­ni­ty of writ­ers now com­pris­es 144 Cen­tres span­ning more than 100 coun­tries. Our pro­grammes, cam­paigns, events and pub­li­ca­tions con­nect writ­ers and read­ers for glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty and coop­er­a­tion. PEN Inter­na­tion­al is a non-polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion and holds con­sul­ta­tive sta­tus at the Unit­ed Nations and UNESCO.

PEN Cana­da is a non­par­ti­san orga­ni­za­tion of writ­ers that works with oth­ers to defend free­dom of expres­sion as a basic human right at home and abroad. PEN Cana­da pro­motes lit­er­a­ture, fights cen­sor­ship, helps free per­se­cut­ed writ­ers from prison, and assists writ­ers liv­ing in exile in Cana­da.

The Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Pro­gram (IHRP) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Fac­ul­ty of Law enhances the legal pro­tec­tion of exist­ing and emerg­ing inter­na­tion­al human rights oblig­a­tions through advo­ca­cy, knowl­edge-exchange, and capac­i­ty-build­ing ini­tia­tives that pro­vide expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents and legal exper­tise to civ­il