Indian free speech law: Democracy redo

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In a major victory for free speech, the Indian supreme court slashed the draconian provision in section 66A of the Information Technology Act. Session 66A had infringed the right of speech of Indian citizens since 2000. The IT Act of 2000 gave the Indian government the power to arrest an individual for posting “offensive” content online. Recently, the court struck off section 66A, stating that the definition in the rule book for deeming an act “offensive” is unclear and irrational and clarifying that what is offensive to one individual could seem appropriate to others.

This decision comes amidst a major public discourse in India during the past month, after the Indian government decided to ban the broadcast of the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter” about the 2012 rape of an young Indian girl in Delhi. As a democratic republic, India has been a free society since its independence in 1947, barring the brief emergency in 1975 imposed by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The founding fathers of India placed significant emphasis on freedom of speech when the Indian constitution was written.

The Delhi rape case has transformed India in numerous ways, and particularly on the questions of women’s rights and citizens’ freedoms. The girl Nirbhaya has become a social change icon in the country. But the banning of “India’s Daughter” is viewed by many Indians as a repression of free speech.

Benefits of Section 66A Draconian axing:

The striking of Section 66A means Indians can express their opinion in the written or speech form on almost anything without fearing prosecution. Most important benefit of this draconian removal is the fact that Indians can now fight the government in-case of free speech oppressions. But the sedition law still exists in the Indian Law, any person can still be prosecuted in India for anti-government activities such as hate speech or contempt towards the government establishment. Also, couple of major amendments, section 69A and Section 79 still remain as road blocks for a freer India. Under the Section 69A of the Indian Penal Code the government has power to block any information from the Internet or any electronic resource in-case of communal violence but, the alleged improper content should be submitted to court before the government may take action as per the Section 79.

Remaining Censorships in India:

Still work remains to be done in the quest for free India as Section 66A dismissal statement is still unclear on the point of freedom of “expression” i.e. cartoons, photographs and movies. This imprecision gives the government leverage in prosecuting a print cartoonist or a private filmmaker or an amateur photographer. After all, the law treats freedom of speech and freedom of expression as two different entities though it seems to understand that both are mutually inclusive.

The master of the enlightenment age Voltaire famously defended free speech by stating, though one may not agree about something but one ought to defend to death the right of that being expressed. A similar notion is picking steam in Indian society after the government’s “India’s daughter” documentary ban. The recent pro free-speech judgement from the Supreme Court adds zest in the fight for a freer India.

Opinion by Vikas Sharma Vemuri


Center For Internet and Society-India

The Hindu