Where to draw the line?

Mar 29, 2012, 07:46 IST | Sudeshna Chowdhury

At a seminar held by the Indo-Arab Society on Tuesday at Islam Gymkhana, panellists spoke on the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression

At a seminar held by the Indo-Arab Society on Tuesday at Islam Gymkhana, panellists spoke on the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression

The absence of Salman  Rushdie from the Jaipur Literature Festival held recently, raised some serious questions about our fundamental right of speech and expression. While various Muslim groups strictly objected to his visit, there was an equally powerful section of society that condemned the government for giving in to the demands of a few religious groups. Many considered this move by the government as a direct attack on one of our basic fundamental rights.

Power of social media: People gather by a statue representing the
cart of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruitseller whose self-immolation
sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator and ignited the Arab
Spring. Thousands of Tunisians rallied in celebration of the first
anniversary of the uprising. The Arab Spring was also hailed as the
social media revolution

Off late, the media too has come under a lot of criticism for breaching privacy of individuals. The question is where to draw the line when it comes to freedom of speech and expression? At a seminar held by the Indo-Arab Society on Tuesday at Islam Gymkhana, Marine Drive speakers gathered to speak on the subject, 'Freedom of Speech and Expression --should a limit be imposed on these fundamental rights?' By the time the seminar began, the auditorium was packed to capacity.

Contemplative: Kumar Ketkar at the seminar organized by the
Indo-Arab Society. Pics/Satajit Desai

Kumar Ketkar, well-known journalist and editor of Divya Marathi Daily suggested that freedom should be accompanied with tolerance. Talking about freedom of the press, Ketkar said, "The notion of freedom has been complicated with advanced technology.

Unbiased: Rafiq Dada, Former Additional Solicitor General of India,
makes a point

In the good old days, when there was no television, hundreds of people used to congregate in maidans in Mumbai to listen to political leaders. Soon the media scenario was all set  for a change. In the 1970s, television was just introduced. But it was under government control. People soon wanted liberation of television.

Attention: MN Singh, former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai
addresses the audience

However there was no concept of private television channels existing at that time. Freedom of television came only after the 1990s. With the arrival of television channels, the idea of freedom also got complicated. Various channels started competing with each other for freedom. Slowly freedom was getting linked to irresponsibility. The problem was technology has come faster than consciousness." Emphasizing on the 'responsibility quotient', Ketkar said, "The media has the power to reach out to lakhs of people. Hence the media itself should behave responsibly."

Demands: Protesters demonstrate in front of the White House in
Washington against legislation known as House Resolution (HR) 347
which critics say restricts freedom of speech and assembly. Pics/AFP

Rafiq Dada, Senior Advocate and Former Additional Solicitor General of India, who was one of the speakers, warned against the nationalization of truth. "Sometimes we are opinionated and look at things with a certain slant. This bias has permeated various sections of our society and we have to get rid of it," said Dada. He further added, "There is a huge responsibility that lies with the masses, who should learn to be tolerant.

Controversy: Visitors wait for Salman Rushdie video link session to
start during Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in Jaipur on January 24, 2012.
A planned video address by British author Salman Rushdie to an Indian
literary festival was scrapped because of security fears. Muslim groups
in the city of Jaipur had called for police to ban the video link over the
protracted row about alleged blasphemy in Rushdie's novel
"The Satanic Verses"

Civilized society frowns upon acts of violence, which stems from difference in opinions. One can appeal to the law and then let the law take its course. If a sense of tolerance grows, freedom too will grow. Freedom is emancipation from all restrictions." Dada also emphasized that there should be no restrictions on investigative journalism. "Freedom can be restricted on various grounds. We have to fight against restrictions," he said.

But M N Singh, former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, who was also one of the speakers, said that even though freedom of speech and expression is our fundamental right, "it is not an absolute right. Hence there are a few restrictions when it hurts religious sentiments of a group of people."

Talking of Satanic Versus written by Salman Rushdie, Singh said, "If  Rushdie were an Indian citizen, then he would have been arrested and if I was the Commissioner now, I would have definitely arrested him." Talking on homosexuality, Singh said, "There are some people who want that Article 377 (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a piece of legislation introduced during British rule that criminalises sexual activity against the order of nature) should be repealed.

But what we don't realize is that many people in the country may not be comfortable with the idea of homosexuality. It is this section of people, who are not represented by the media and their voices are not heard." Referring to the power of media, Singh recalled an incident when he was the Commissioner of Police in Mumbai. "In 2000 there was tension gripping the city, when rumours were floating around that a warrant was passed to arrest Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

When the decision was taken by the government and I wasn't even consulted before the decision of arresting Balasaheb Thackeray was taken. To control the situation, I announced on Doordarshan that there were no plans to arrest Balasaheb. Soon the situation in the city was under control. But later I arrested him and he was released on bail." The speakers concluded that in a democratic set up, it is the responsibility of the government to uphold the rights of citizens. At the same time, self-imposed restriction too is important for democracy and democratic institutions.

The seminar was followed by an interactive session with members of the audience. An audience member asked if it is justified when the government taps phones of individuals and tries to control information. To this Ketkar replied, "No one can control flow of information. There is social media, which is really powerful. The internet is another tool which can mobilize people all around the world." 

When another member of the audience inquired if there is a certain section of the media that is biased and represents only one viewpoint, Ketkar replied, "Today we have multiple viewpoints on various issues, but all those view points are not equally represented. Americanization of news still prevails."

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