India's southern most state is going south on values of free speech. For the health of the world's largest democracy, the trend is worrying.
Robert Guest, foreign editor of The Economist recently said, “…[f]ree speech is the best defense against bad government. Everyone should be at liberty to berate politicians…Mockery, even unfair mockery, is part of the rough and tumble of democracy. No government can be trusted with the power to silence it.” The “Fourth Pillar” of a democracy – its press – serves as a check over those higher up in the food chain, by bringing forth dispassionate skepticism. Over the past few years, however, India has seen a multitude of attacks on the Fourth Pillar of its democracy. While many have taken place at a national level, there is also a more worrying sign of decentralized repression in several states, chief among them – Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu has been in the news for the past few years ever since the conviction, re-election, and the eventual passing of Former Late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, in 2016. Political leaders in TN often cultivate cult like following, Ms. Jayalalithaa, and her ruling AIADMK Party are the epitome of this trend. More a religious head rather than simple a leader of her state, her funeral procession was large enough to bring a state as populous as Britain, to a halt. Politics in the state went through a tumultuous power struggle among her 3 close aides as a hapless opposition looked on. It ended with two factions coming together to oust the third. The current government, led by the two victorious factions, are just a shadow of Ms. Jayalalithaa and therefore feel the need to create that very sense of respect and reverence among the masses. Rule Number 1 in this playbook – silence the critics.
Since the beginning of this year, Tamil Nadu has witnessed numerous instances of insidious state control over the press. In May 2018, the state police brutally repressed a demonstration against a copper refinery in the coastal state (See Police Brutality in India). As television channels discussed the matter, the government took offence and initiated legal action.
In June, the State-Government-controlled Arasu Cable Network, first blocked and then downgraded a regional news channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai. The trigger? A talk show titled, “Are continuous protests for people's basic needs, or for political reasons?” The debate turned sour when the Director retaliated against a claim made by PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Party – the BJP – that the Toothukudi revolts were incited by anti-social elements. As the Director cited unrest following the murder of a member of the Hindu Munnani, a fringe Hindu Nationalist Organisation, BJP supporters in the crowd allegedly, created a commotion and grew even more livid when a AIADMK MLA U. Thaniyarasu supported the Director’s views. Soon, the crowd began throwing stones on their vehicles. The police charged the Director, and MLA Thaniyarasu, along with the organizer Puthiya Thalaimurai TV and the channel’s reporter under sections 153 (A) and 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deal with inciting religious sentiments and promoting enmity on religious grounds. The accused, if convicted, face upto 3 years in prison.
The law permits punishing even free speech despite protections under the Constitution as public order is an exception to freedom of speech and expression under Art. 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. A relic of the times when India was rife with communal strife after independence in 1950s, the laws illiberal use was perhaps never intended by those who enacted it. Subsequent governments have however found it convenient to enforce these provisions to silence critics, and given the notorious delays in India’s judiciary, the very act of formally being charged is a deterrent enough to silence most people.
In this case however, while the contention that downgrading of Puthiya TV is a restriction on freedom of press is tenable, that regarding charges on the Director and Mr. Thaniyarasu is not entirely justifiable. As appalling as it may sound, the government might have a case against both of them as their comments did end up enraging violence. It is now up to them to prove that they had no intention to incite them and that would be the true test of law.
Downgrading the channel, however, sets a rather dangerous precedent. It also goes on to show the vulnerability of the press before the all mighty state. Booking the channel as a platform does not seem to make much sense and clearly stifles discourse. The speakers, however, are a different story altogether. While the blame game continues, free speech continues to be only a partial reality in India. When your correspondent spoke to a few journalists in the state, the responses were particularly jarring. Kavitha Muralidharan, a freelance journalist, says,
“Tamil Nadu is relatively better than other states in that you don't largely get killed for what you say or write…There have been defamation suits, criminal cases, and instances of blacking out channels to stop telecasting unpleasant issues by the state.”
Trolling, a banal way of referring to online harassment, is another issue in India’s public discourse. Women journalists, in particular, face character assassinations, and abuse on social media. Ms. Muralidharan adds.
“...Do I still speak my mind? I still do yes, only because right now I am not attached to any organization. If I were [associated with an organization], I would have to toe its line.”
RK Radhakrishnan of Frontline, a news magazine, claimed that journalists seemed to be afraid to fully speak their mind owing to two primary reasons – commercial considerations and “prolonged litigation [that] costs time and money”.
“People would be afraid to write against commercial establishments for fear of losing out on advertising revenue. They might also get wrapped up in a series of defamation suits and other offences.”
He further pointed out something deeply disturbing, talking about harassment through suits he spoke of filing of cases in far-away places such as Dibrugarh or Sichar Valley – both of which are remote regions in the thickly forested North Eastern India - he said,
“I can only conclude that there’s a nexus between the local court, the cops and the corporate [houses]”.
As for the Central government, Mr. Radhakrishnan contends that the government is ensuring silence by harnessing the fact that “the media needs them more than they need the media”.
It is an open secret in India that several media houses bend over backwards and compromise to stay in the business, coupled with government friendly corporate houses running the advertising space, scope for dissent is shrinking. As a journalist from a TN based media house said, on the condition of anonymity,
“A journalist may get the best story of his life but the political, social or economic impact it makes is almost near zero”.
For freedom of press in India, South is not just a direction.
About the Author
Kamya Vishwanath is extremely passionate about her political opinions and reads extensively about the subject. A strong advocate of mental health and combating stigma around the same, she has interned with the Spastics Society of Karnataka and the Center for Law and Policy Research and continues to write passionately about mental illness.