The word ‘censorship’ always reminds us of the days of Emergency, imposed by the Indira Gandhi government on June 25, 1975. But the struggle for freedom of expression is as ancient as the history of censorship.
The most famous case of censorship in ancient times is that of Socrates, who was sentenced to drink poison in 399 BC for his corruption of youth, his failing to acknowledge the Gods that Athens acknowledged and introducing new deities. However, he was not the first person to be punished for violating the moral and political code of his time.
In Europe, in the middle ages, the church controlled all the educational institutions. No book could be printed or sold without the permission of the church. Though it has been a long time since those days, censorship continues to persist even now. At the most, it has changed its attire and sometimes camouflages itself.
Attacks on freedom of expression and freedom of media in South Asia have alarmingly increased in the last year. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported that the Asia Pacific is the world’s deadliest region for journalists, and it features three of the top ten worst countries for journalist killings in the past 25 years.
In India, five journalists became victims of targeted killings in 2017. Apart from journalists, many social activists, writers, filmmakers and actors have faced direct and indirect attacks during the last three years. Killings of MM Kaburgi, Govinda Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, attacks on authors like Perumal Murugan, cartoonist Bala, on five intellectuals from Assam for merely attending a meeting organised by minority organisations, Yogesh Master – a theatre personality from Karnataka and rationalist Professor Narendra Nayak are inductive of increasing attacks on freedom of expression in the country.
In Chhattisgarh, the State government disclosed on the floor of the Assembly on December 21 that 14 journalists had been arrested till November 2017. The common characteristic of most of the journalists arrested in the State was that they relentlessly exposed police excesses done in the name of anti-naxalite operations.
One of the arrested journalists is Vinod Verma, who was allegedly blackmailing Rajesh Munat, a State Minister. He was a journalist-activist, who was part of the Editors Guild of India team that visited Jagdalpur, Bastar and Raipur districts last year to verify and assess the threat faced by journalists of Chhattisgarh. Police regularly hound journalists of the State who dare report against police excesses.
On January 7, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) registered an FIR under the Indian Penal Code sections 419 (punishment for cheating by impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery) and 471 (using as genuine a forged document) against ‘The Tribune’ newspaper based in Chandigarh and its reporter Rachna Khaira for publishing a report on January 3 for exposing breach of Aadhaar data for a fee.
It is strange that the UIDAI instead of taking action against corruption within its system targeted ‘The Tribune’ and the reporter who exposed the corruption and criminal breach of trust by its own staff, who were selling the information.
The controversy surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film ‘Padmavati’ has cooled down with the Central Board of Film Certification clearing the film by suggesting a few changes, including that of the title from Padmavati to Padmavat. However, such suggestions have more to do with the intervening in the freedom of expression. Directly curbing the rights of artistes, writers, filmmakers or any other cultural workers to interpret history and reality in a creative way is sheer censorship.
Moreover, exerting pressure on creative, cultural or literary persons by violent or coercive means produces an oppressive environment, which is also censorship. It is a form of self-censorship devoid of a legal face. The freedom of expression and creative interpretation of past and present are being held hostage by various nationalist political and religious organisations.
The tendency of the state to rewrite history to suit the ruling classes, erecting and demolishing statues, drawing pictures and composing songs to match the colours of the powers that be is antithetical to the concept of participatory democracy.
In the introduction to the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of impunity, it is said that “every journalist killed or neutralised by terror is an observer less of the human condition. Every attack distorts reality by creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.”
According to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), in nine out of ten cases, the perpetrators of these crimes are never prosecuted. The international media freedom bodies have expressed that the impunity may be understood as the failure to bring the perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and it perpetuates the cycle of violence against journalists. These must be addressed.
The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists has explained why freedom of expression and media is crucial for the development of society. Without freedom of expression, and particularly freedom of press, an informed, active and engaged citizenry is impossible.
In a climate where journalists are safe, citizens find it easier to access quality information and many objectives become possible as a result, including democratic governance and poverty reduction, conservation of environment, gender equality and the empowerment of women; justice and culture of human rights to name a few.
The curtailment of their expression deprives society as a whole of their journalistic contributions and results in wider impact on press freedom. A climate of intimidation and violence leads to self-censorship. In such a climate, societies suffer because they lack the information needed to fully realise their potential.
In the present socio-political environment where fear and threat rules, democracy and diversity of opinion is homogenised by bulldozing freedom of expression and freedom of media. Simply put, Vikas or Sabka Sath is impossible in such a milieu.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)