Report: India free speech under threat

Media-watch website says increasing attacks a chilling reminder of erosion of free speech in world’s largest democracy.

The Hoot study says surveillance of citizens have increased [REUTERS]

Journalists, media and freedom of speech of Indian citizens have come under increased threat from state surveillance, armed groups and stray attacks in 2013, a new report says.

Eight journalists were killed, there were 94 cases of censorship and 19 instances of attacks on journalists besides technology-aided surveillance on individuals in 2013, according to a report “Free Speech in India 2013”, authored by the media-watch website The Hoot.

That journalists have come under increased threat can be seen by the fact that the number killed has gone up for the third successive year, up from five in 2012 and three in 2011.

The media-watch website termed this “a chilling reminder of the slow erosion of free speech in the world’s largest democracy”.

This year particularly marked the entrenching of surveillance mechanisms directly contravening citizen’s fundamental rights.

According to The Hoot report, “the increasing surveillance of citizens, by both state and private bodies, aided by technology as well as official policy, is a matter of grave concern. These forebodings were flagged in the very first Free Speech Report of 2010.”

Citizens unaware

Now, ‘official’ mechanisms are being put in place to conduct surveillance with little or no scrutiny, it said. What makes this worse was that citizens were scarcely aware of the surveillance they were under, because of the sophisticated technology used for it.

The report gave examples of the Central Monitoring System, the threat to privacy inherent in the Aadhar (identity) card scheme meant to cover the entire population and the interception of electronic communication by officially appointed agencies or the social media labs and cyber cells of police forces.

Of the 19 instances of direct physical assaults on journalists, there was a brutal acid attack on a journalist in Parbhani town in the western state of Maharashtra. There was another attempt to burn alive another journalist in Kolkata, capital of eastern West Bengal state.

Four of the attacks were engineered by political parties while in seven cases the media was attacked during coverage of protests.

As for censorship, the number increased from 74 in 2012 to 94 this year. Of these, 31 were linked to reports on the net. At least 19 commercial films encountered censorship issues over content, title, songs and dialogues, the Hoot report said.

Online censorship

Besides journalists, others including writers, artists, theatre performers, political activists and students who used the social media were subject to censorship, attacks and even prosecuted.

The report described this as not only “an indication of intolerance to alternative ideas and opinions but also exemplifies the impunity which the attackers enjoy, often with the complicity of the very authorities entrusted with the task of upholding law and order.”

As if the threat to media from within was not enough, classified documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA, revealed that India was the fifth most tracked country by the United States’ intelligence which used a secret data-mining programme to monitor worldwide internet data.

What was worse was the Indian government’s response to the US snooping. Federal foreign minister Salman Khurshid almost defended the surveillance on the grounds that the US government’s programme was ‘not actually snooping’ but computer analysis of call patterns and emails, the report pointed out.

Source: Al Jazeera