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How to Improve Freedom of Speech in India

February 24th, 2013
in Op Ed

by Ajay Shah, ajay shah blog

Most of us in India understand that there is a huge problem with freedom of speech in India. India now ranks at the bottom of the world on freedom of speech. Here is some interesting discussion on such facts.

For a sense of the zeitgeist, see an editorial and Lawrence Liang in the Economic Times. R. Jagannathan on FirstPost reminds us that judges in India are not intellectuals who will lead the way on this.

Follow up:

Public shaming

There are two ways through which things are getting better. The first area of importance is public outrage. Even if India has laws that hinder free speech, we should all speak up and establish social norms in favour of free speech, where the use of existing laws that support attacks on freedom of speech is just not done.

As an example, Vodafone embarked on legal bullying against one person, but backed away when faced with outrage.

A splendid example of this push back is IIPM. Recent events (link, link) should make IIPM regret having gone down this route. Speaking for me, I have not accepted and will not accept invitations from IIPM for speaking or writing in their publications, and I will be quite circumspect about resumes that carry the name IIPM. (This is my standard operating procedure for left tail organisations in India). If enough of us do this, it will establish deterrence.

Outrage matters. We should be naming and shaming the offenders and maintaining a hall of shame.

Fixing the laws

The real problem is the laws. Modifications are required -- large and small. We need to shift away from proscribing defamation, obscenity, blasphemy to a stance of supporting freedom of expression. Restrictions on freedom implemented through government control on the Internet need to give way to accepting freedom of the Internet. What is new in recent months is that the outrage has bubbled up to the point where many people are saying Let's go fix the laws:

  • An excellent television conversation between Shashi Tharoor and Karan Thapar.
  • Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express talks about the unusual response of Omar Abdullah and a delicious quotation from Manish Tewari.
  • Suketu Mehta in the New York Times says that we must fix the Constitution.
  • Jay Panda, Lok Sabha MP, has begun working on private members bills that will fix the laws.

Small modifications of the laws will constitute elements such as: shifting defamation from criminal to civil liability, and having a provision where costs are always paid to the defendant if the accusation does not hold. Fundamental change will constitute fixing the Constitution.

Conclusion

Capitalism and freedom reinforce each other. Both require the ability to think (freedom of speech, freedom of thought) and the ability to act (to vote, to transact, to conduct business, to live). Achieving freedom requires pushing on both fronts -- on establishing a vibrant and open `marketplace for ideas' and on establishing freedom to act.

IIPM reminds us that apart from being a question of high ideas, this is a question of simple consumer protection. When a person thinks of getting a degree, he should have full information about the choices, and IIPM is trying to block that information. Similarly, consumer protection requires that for any publicly visible financial product or service, there should be an unrestricted marketplace of ideas, otherwise the ability of consumers to make wise choices is impaired.

In the best of times, liberal democracies suffer from too little criticism. If we are to make progress on dealing with the problems of corruption and runaway governments, the most important channel is high quality, pointed, trenchant criticism. The present laws are grossly out of touch with the principle of freedom of speech. We need to go fix that: first as a matter of social custom, and then as a matter of law. It appears that there is some movement on both fronts.

 









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