Monday, February 16, 2009

Free speech and the Indian Media

I have often wondered if we in India truly understand the concept of free speech. Free speech is apparently guaranteed by our constitution although it can be somewhat curtailed at the whim of the states based on what they consider offensive. The problem seems to be that since states usually curtail free speech based on what the citizens find offensive, the citizens themselves have not really understood the importance of the right to free speech. Free speech is not only speech we find pleasant, amusing or in support of our dearly held ideals and beliefs; free speech also includes speech which challenges our beliefs, offends our sensibilities and angers us. When we only want speech that appeals to us, and when we seek to throttle and silence speech that offends us, we find that we will eventually lose our rights to all free speech.

Unfortunately, currently our Indian media seems uninterested in raising the alarm to the dangers of losing this right. Recently the editor of a respected newspaper “The Statesman” was arrested for reprinting an article of Johann Hari on the 5th of February. It was titled “Why Should I respect these oppressive religions”.

Apparently some members of the muslim community were offended by references to their religion in the article and protested violently in front of the office building. If indeed their religious beliefs were the only ones challenged by the author, one might have questioned the author’s motives and supported a peaceful protest. However, Mr. Hari pretty much challenges all the fundamental beliefs held by the major world religions including Christianity , Islam, Hinduism etc. In addition the protest started turning violent.

Secondly , following the protests, the paper had issued an apology for any hurt feelings. Inspite of these events, the state’s police, instead of arresting the violent protestors, decided to arrest the editor.

What is especially interesting is that during this entire incident, not one mainstream paper or major TV network covered this story in any detail. The silence on this story, one where our basic right to free speech is attacked, was only contrasted by the cacophony that came out of our national media on the Ram sena—pink chaddis Valentine day fiasco. Now one can almost understand the media ignoring this story if something of fundamental national importance was taking place at the same time. However, the sheer inanity of the competing story leaves me wondering. Do we as a people consider the right to go to pub and get drunk on Valentine’s day more important than free speech. One merely concerns the right to intoxication while the other enables an entire nation to disseminate vital information.

Have we lost the capacity as a nation to identify what are truly important rights to preserve if we want to preserve a democracy and protect human rights?
And finally, where is our liberal media, an industry whose entire existence depends on the right to disseminate information and express opinion freely?

Link to the article of Johann Hari

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