Your freedom ends where my fist begins

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Censorship | 19/04/2010
Draconian laws, threats, violence and even derisive television anchors – all these techniques, and more, are deployed to curb free expression of opinions.
Pseudo discussions on TV generate more heat than light, more entertainment than enlightenment, says AMMU JOSEPH.


The police in Chhattisgarh are reportedly considering action against author Arundhati Roy under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, on the basis of a complaint registered by an individual, Vishwajit Mitra, in Raipur. Mitra alleges that Roy’s recent essay, "Walking with the Comrades," glorifies the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), seeks to justify its activities and denigrates national institutions and systems such as the judiciary. 


The 2005 Act is the controversial law under which dozens of citizens have been detained, including physician Binayak Sen (imprisoned for nearly two years) and film-maker Ajay T.G (jailed for over three months), both human rights activists.  Its constitutionality has been challenged in a public interest litigation initiated by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and accepted by the Chhattisgarh High Court last year. 


Mitra’s demand that Roy be prosecuted for writing an article presenting an alternative view of the Maoists and their cause is the latest instance of the growing intolerance of dissent and aversion to genuine, civilised debate that marks our supposedly democratic society today.  The old, reasonable adage, "Your freedom ends where my nose begins," appears to have been recast here as "Your freedom ends where my fist begins" ??" with the fist manifesting itself as draconian laws or character assassination or threat of violence or, all too often, actual violence. 


Freedom of expression is internationally recognised as an essential element of the civil and political rights that are integral to democracy. The fundamental right to freedom of expression includes the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds … orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of … choice."


Tell that to the Shiv Sena, which regularly seeks to determine what citizens can do, say and see ??" most recently flexing their muscles to try and stop the production of a play based on the life and letters of the late Pakistani poet, Sara Shagufta, directed by Mahesh Dattani.  The fact that the official censor board had given the play a U certificate obviously meant little to those who have grown accustomed to successful censorship by mob.



Of course only certain types of opinions attract such vigilantism.  The hate speech and violent threats periodically spewed out by the Shiv Sena and like-minded organisations often go unchallenged, with even those ostensibly in charge of maintaining law and order preferring to lie low and abdicate responsibility.  Enjoying their own freedom of expression, emboldened by the apparent helplessness ??" or unwillingness ??" of the State to take action against them, and encouraged by the public attention they garner with their strong-arm tactics, more such groups are becoming more aggressive more frequently.


While the media provide the oxygen of publicity to groups that both threaten freedom of expression and misuse it with impunity, significant sections of the media actively undermine the free expression of opinions that happen to be different from dominant perceptions.  The most recent example of this is the widespread misrepresentation, labelling, stereotyping and pillorying of those who have spoken out against the use of State violence to combat militant violence, highlighting the need to address the socio-economic roots of the problem underlying the undisputed spread of Maoist presence and influence across vast swathes of the country. 


If Arnab Goswami’s "Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan, I hope you are watching this, we think you are disgusting" in November 2008 was a classic in this genre of journalism, Sagarika Ghose’s more recent "Why does India love to hate Arundhati Roy? … Why are you the writer that India loves to hate?" is equally priceless. 


Media discussions on such controversial issues all too often reflect the kind of bias that well-known international journalist John Pilger referred to in an interview about what is wrong with journalism today.  "Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what Orwell called the official truth," he said. "Many … become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over. ‘Impartially’ and ‘objectivity’ now mean the establishment point of view."

Yet media discussions on current issues serve the public interest best when they are informed by facts rather than presumption and prejudice. Discussions set up as a "big fight" between predictable opponents representing conflicting fringes of opinion can hardly produce genuine, meaningful, constructive debate.  With little or no attempt to create a real conversation ??" placing issues in context, enabling the exchange of varied, nuanced viewpoints, and seeking common ground from which problem-solving ideas can emerge ??" such pseudo discussions tend to generate more heat than light, offering more entertainment than enlightenment. 

The fact is that the news media today play an influential role in setting the terms for national debates on important current events, thereby helping to shape public perceptions of the issues involved. By determining who has a voice in these debates and who is silenced (in one way or another), which issues are discussed and how they are framed, the media have the potential to maintain the status quo or challenge the dominant order. 

Either way, it is clear that the "you’re either with us, or against us" doctrine, lately popularised by George W. Bush but also famously promoted by the likes of Benito Mussolini, is not particularly good for journalism, freedom of expression or democracy.















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