Freedom of speech under threat in India: Media watchdog

There have been at least 11 instances of attacks on journalists and eight cases of bans, a website devoted to tracking the media in the country has said in a report.

Updated: May 02, 2010, 19:41 PM IST

New Delhi: There have been at least 11 instances of attacks on journalists and eight cases of bans, restrictions or regulation of media in India in the last four months, a website devoted to tracking the media in the country has said in a report.

The Free Speech Hub, an initiative of the media watchsite The Hoot, which seeks to monitor instances of attacks and threats to the freedom of speech and expression in the country that is enshrined in the constitution as a fundamental right, said the past four months had also seen seven instances of censorship of books, films and television channels.

There had been at least nine complaints and protests by social and political groups against articles, films, plays or even comments and opinions voiced by prominent citizens and an attack on a media house, it said.

"Freedom of speech in India is balanced precariously between the threat of physical attacks from security forces and social vigilante groups on the one hand and reassurance of protection from higher judicial authorities on the other but the scales seem tipped in favour of the former," the Free Speech Hub said.

The report, which has tracked threats to free speech in the country since January 2010, has been released on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.

It said that in the first quarter of this year, well-known artist MF Husain decided to give up his Indian citizenship, prominent writers like Paul Zachariah and Arundhati Roy were attacked for their views, the former being physically assaulted, two persons lost their lives as they protested the publication of an article on the burqa, actor Shah Rukh Khan was the unexpected upholder of free speech when he refused to apologise to the Shiv Sena for his utterances and two political activists were charged with sedition for their writings.

It said that Gowhar Bhat, a journalist of Greater Kashmir, was "savagely" beaten up by security forces in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on April 26, barely a week before the global observance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Bhat was covering a demonstration of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

"In the beginning of the year, on Jan 7, photographer Amaan Farooq, was shot at by a senior police officer for covering the aftermath of an encounter in Srinagar. While enquiries have been ordered, the outcome is still awaited."

"Across the country, in Kalinganagar, Orissa, journalist Amulya Pani was assaulted on April 5 when he went to cover the police firing on villagers there and in Jirabam, Manipur, journalists Moirangthem Romeo and Atom Lukhoi were arrested by Imphal East commandos on March 20, without any assigned reason," it said.

Citing other instances of attacks on freedom of expression and speech, the report said the response of the judiciary towards SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suits and complaints against the exercise of free speech was the bright spot.

The Indian constitution enshrines freedom of expression as a fundamental right with "liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship" being in the constitution`s preamble. Although freedom of the press - unlike say in the US - is not explicity guaranteed by the constitution, there have been numerous judgements by the Supreme Court championing it.

However, the report said the outcome of free speech cases in the country`s high courts operating in different states was not always uniform.