The one-day ban of news channel NDTV India is a significant escalation against India’s free press. The government has long monopolised the carriage of speech, particularly radio and television, a stranglehold broken only by the rise of private cable TV in the mid-1990s. All channels are forced to obey the Programme Code, a bizarre, poorly-drafted censorship law which is clearly unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to strike down the anachronistic colonial offence of criminal defamation is wrong. Criminalising defamation serves no legitimate public purpose; the vehicle of criminalisation – sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) – is unconstitutional; and the court’s reasoning is woolly at best.
In India, a cable television channel’s content has invited a government warning, which the channel has judicially challenged. The incident recasts light on India’s absurd system of television censorship, which primarily flows from the Cable Televison Act, 1995. A poorly-drafted list of prohibited content, called the Programme Code, is interpreted by a group of unaccountable bureaucrats with no specialized knowledge of television, arts, or the law. Similar to the erstwhile section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which was recently judicially struck down for vagueness, the Programme Code has survived by evading judicial scrutiny. How does such arbitrary censorship subsist? Humpty Dumpty might have the best answer.
[Excerpt] The irony of Subramanian Swamy’s newest challenge to India’s hate speech and blasphemy laws is lost on many of his supporters. The same laws were used to prosecute Wendy Doniger and harass Maqbool F. Hussain, as well as Shirin Dalvi and others who published images depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
[Summary] Following the historic striking down of section 66A of the IT Act, there are reports the government is looking to introduce new provisions to censor the Internet. Free speech observers are not giving enough attention to the many clues from India’s past governmental policy of free speech that suggests a trend of censorship founded upon concerns of governance, nation-building, community honour, and public order. This free speech policy has interacted with colonial-era notions of indigenous custom to create a narrative that pits individual rights against community interests, modern law against local sensibilities, courts against government. The Rangeela Rasool affair (1927), the First Press Commission (1954), and the Second Press Commission (1982) are seminal moments in the evolution of this policy that indicate the contours of future government action. Past experience shows that strong governments invariably impede free speech. Looking ahead, section 66A’s replacement, which may not be a new provision but could be something more covert, will almost certainly act on this narrative and continue the government’s free speech policy.