PEN International Slams Lack of Free Expression in India

PEN International Slams Lack of Free Expression in India

Raksha Kumar |
October 20, 2018

The writers’ world body expresses grave concern over the shrinking space for freedom of expression in the country

New Delhi (Saturday: 20 October): In a damning study, the PEN International has come down heavily on the pathetic state of freedoms of speech and expression in present-day India. Titled India: Pursuing Truth In the Face of Intolerance, the study observes in its introduction, “Spaces for free expression are shrinking: dissenting voices – be they journalists, academics, writers or students – face intimidation, harassment, online abuse, violence.” The study was released on the sidelines of the 84th Congress of the Pen International, held in Pune last month. 

PEN International was founded way back in 1921. The 100-year-old association of writers from across the globe works to promote intellectual co-operation among writers and seek support for those who work in hostile situations.

The study, while detailing the killing of journalists such as Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari, deals with state violence against several journalists across the country in recent times. “Silencing the media through violent means signals the breakdown of a functioning democracy. Not only is impunity the result of weak law enforcement and criminal justice systems, but it also points to an unquestioning society that accepts and perpetuates violence,” says the study.

Delhi-based lawyer and author Gautum Bhatia has this study discussed at length the complete breakdown of the criminal justice system in the country vis a vis the law and free expression. Speaking about the role of the Supreme Court in upholding the right to free expression, he says, “In fact, it has now become common practice to see regular PILs filed in the Supreme Court, asking for bans on books and films.” Though, in most cases such attempts at muzzling this basic human right do not succeed. But they invariably succeed in creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

The study also covers the Indian criminal defamation law which the state refuses to rescind, going against the global trend. It observes, “It is the media’s job to challenge weakened institutions by holding them to account. But laws, and tools sanctioned by the law, are affecting the future of freedom of speech and prospects of a vibrant democracy look rather bleak.”

Apart from offline threats and violence that both writers and journalist who dare to dissent face, the study covers another topic of import: online abuse. It is a well-known fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the present NDA government at the centre, has put a formal structure in place, in the form of its IT cell, to abuse and intimidate online dissenting voices. It was obvious that writers from across the world discussed the issue at length at the Pune Congress. Many were aghast at the systematic way online abuse unfolds. Ironically, India does not have a law to deal with online abuse specifically, making it difficult, if not impossible, to deal with trolls.

While talking about online abuse, it is impossible to ignore the deep impact it has specially on women writers and journalists. The study brings to light the experiences of several journalists, including Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt, who have consistently been the target of trolls.

The study also takes a critical look at university and academic spaces in a separate chapter titled, “Censorship and Universities.” Documenting the shrinking spaces across academic institutions in this chapter, Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand begs to question whether younger Indians are being trained to ask tough questions at all or if the universities are shrinking critical thinking faculties of younger Indians. Writing about the claustrophobic environment literary writers in the country are facing, author Nilanjana Roy observes, “The times take a heavy toll. For writers caught in the net of lawsuits – thanks to draconian criminal defamation laws and the laws that make it an offence to offend religious sentiments – or facing wave after wave of abuse and threats on social media, the struggle can be lonely. After the initial wave of support, people turn back to their own lives.”

As all these issues found an echo at the PEN Congress in Pune, PEN International’s Executive Director Carles Torner said, “We gather here in solidarity with defenders of free expression in India, those who are pursuing truth in the face of intolerance.” Torner added, “As we mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Mahatma Gandhi, we call upon the Indian government to act to protect freedom of expression. The time to act is now.”

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