Sibal’s Demand For Internet Censorship: How Healthy Is It For Democracy?

By Porisma Pompi Gogoi:

‘Our voices had been systematically squashed at Raj ghat.’

This statement was made by Mr Alok Dixit, a journalist by profession and an active member of the campaign ‘SAVE YOUR VOICE- a movement against web censorship’ regarding an incident that took place a few days back at the Samaadhi (cemetery) of the ‘father of our nation’- at Raj ghat. Before I delve deep into the matter, I would like to mention that the ‘bone of contention’ here is Web censorship – the suppression of information published or viewed on the Internet. In simple words, it’s like ‘putting restrictions on web content’. Right from the time of the Kargil War in 1999, when the first web censoring action was performed by VSNL (former ISP), till present, it has remained a controversial issue in our country. Until few years back, there had been no prolonged government policy or law enforced for the elimination of offensive or obnoxious content from social websites that endangers public order or national security, till recently when the IT and communications minister, Kapil Sibal raised the topic of ‘screening’ the internet content and summoned executives from Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and Facebook to his office, urging them to evolve a mechanism to delete abusive content from their sites.

Just to provide a brief idea of the incident that occurred: The active members of ‘Save Your Voice’ had led out a rally in Delhi against Kapil Sibal’s attempt to regulate internet content. These campaigners were supposed to celebrate the first day of April, which is the universally accepted ‘April Fool’s Day’, as ‘Kapil Sibal’s Day’. But why was this the only day chosen? Why couldn’t it be any other day, or the first day of any other month? To answer this query, the statement of Mr Aseem Trivedi, the founder of ‘Save Your Voice’ can be quoted down- “Mr Sibal has represented the fools across the globe by his imprudent attempts to censor the Web. We strongly feel that April Fools’ Day should honour the reckless antics of our noble minister.”

It might be of interest to analyse Mr Sibal’s offence in this regard that led to the agitation of these people. Last year, the minister of Communication and Information Technology, Mr Kapil Sibal had announced that the social networking sites like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Youtube etc. should be restricted to publish ‘abusive and derogatory content’ that could create social tension. By that he had referred to uploading of pictures and videos having altered images of popular leaders and related content, in particular on the use of morphed images of Ms Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh on Facebook. (The Hindu, Dec 2011) Mr Sibal had also met senior representatives of the popular websites and asked them to evolve a mechanism to filter the offensive category before publishing them over the social media, or else face the consequences for not doing so. He says, “The print media is subject to the laws of this country, the electronic media is subject to the laws of this country. My only question is why should social media not be a subject?”

Coming back to the incident, the word on the observation of this day was spread widely across the social media and, needless to say, it received considerable response from people all over the country. However on the D day, the social activists were prohibited from entering the grounds of the cemetery by the Delhi police and when inquired about the reason, they were told that the police were conducting their duty solely on the orders that came from the PMO (Prime Minister’s office) and the IB (Intelligence Bureau). In his article, Mr Alok has mentioned that they couldn’t carry out the programme even though they had informed the local police as well the Raj ghat authorities beforehand. He also added that the Inspector of that area (Dariyaganj) showed helplessness in this regard saying that the matter was directly dealt by PMO and higher authorities. Lastly, he has provided a link to an article published by the Hindustan Times wherein the ‘rates’ of Delhi Police for providing security to the general public for conducting campaigns against the ministry has been blatantly exposed.

India is the largest democracy of the world, with a strong socio-political and economic scenario. Since the very meaning of ‘democracy’ is a government by the people, it is clear that public opinion is the strongest weapon of a democracy, as well as of our country, and thus, it must be provided with enough security so that it can be expressed without any obstruction or fear. It is for this purpose that the Constitution guarantees to all the citizens of India the ‘freedom of speech and expression’ and various other freedoms in the form of the fundamental rights. The fundamental rights mentioned in the constitution of the Indian democracy guarantees the development of the personality of every individual and preservation of human dignity. However we should notice that, in the above incident, two of the most important fundamental rights have been violated, namely- the right to freedom (of speech and expression) and the right to equality. I would like to elaborate a little on this point.

The first right that was seen to be violated is the ‘Right to freedom’ (provided in articles 19, 20, 21 and 22), which includes, among many others, the right to speech and expression. The right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees six freedoms, and although not mentioned clearly, the phrase ‘freedom of expression’ does include ‘freedom of press’. It also mentions that reasonable restrictions can be imposed in the interest of public order, security of State, decency or morality. There is also mention about the ‘freedom to assemble peacefully without arms, on which the State can impose reasonable restrictions in the interest of public order and the sovereignty and integrity of India and the ‘freedom to form associations or unions’, and both of these freedoms are subjected to the right of the State to impose reasonable restrictions in the interest of public order, morality and the sovereignty and integrity of India.
The second right that was violated is the ‘Right to equality’(provided for in Articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18) which is regarded as the principal foundation of all other rights and liberties, and guarantees social equality and equal access to public areas. According to this right, every person shall have equal access to public places like public parks, museums, wells, bathing ghats and temples etc.

Combining the incident and the criteria provided by both the rights, the questions that could be raised is that- Why weren’t those people, who were a part of the press as well as an association which meant no offence to any one in general or particular, who neither carried any arms or weapons nor used any abusive words or instruments, allowed access to the grounds of Raj Ghat? Were these activists a threat to the national security in any way that they were denied of their freedom? Or is it that they were a social threat because they weren’t abiding by the ‘paid’ system of securities? It is known to almost every one that an enormous size of public expenditure is invested in the name of social security every year in our country. Does that amount not provide enough to those who work for the security and safety of the general public, that the public is again asked to pay extra for it in order to be granted permission to raise their voices for a general cause? Is the social security system ‘free of cost’ only for the bureaucrats and not for the common man?

So here’s yet another great example of the largest democracy of the world. The abode of twenty eight states and seven centre-controlled union territories has now become a hazard for the freedom of the ‘common man’. Yes, ‘common man’- that’s the ultimate title that is being provided to the citizens of India. Being the seventh largest and second most populous country with roughly one sixth of the world’s population, it is obvious that India is the home of the largest amount of ‘common man’. India is competing effectively in all grounds, be it in self-sufficiency or sustainability, with other developed nations. Then why is it not able to take care of the issues that go on within it? Why do such things happen in the Bharatiya Ganarajya causing the common man to lose faith upon the bureaucrats or the leaders they appoint through their common opinion? We all support the movements against corruption. Let’s not fail in recognizing, try and uprooting the corrupt practices that go on behind the veils of a good cause.

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