(New Delhi) – The Indian authorities routinely use vaguely worded, overly broad laws as political tools to silence and harass critics, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The government should repeal or amend laws that are used to criminalize peaceful expression.
The 108-page report, “Stifling Dissent: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in India,” details how criminal laws are used to limit and chill free speech in India. It documents ways overbroad or vague laws are used to stifle political dissent, harass journalists, restrict activities by nongovernmental organizations, arbitrarily block Internet sites or take down content, and target marginalized communities, particularly Dalits, and religious minorities.
“Sedition and criminal defamation laws are routinely used to shield the powerful from criticism, and send a message that dissent carries a high price,” Ganguly said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has frequently said he and his government are committed to upholding the right to freedom of speech. “Our democracy will not sustain if we can’t guarantee freedom of speech and expression,” he said in June 2014. Yet the Modi government has not only failed to address laws which are frequently used to crush these rights, but has used them, as did previous governments, to treat criticism as a crime. His government argued in the Supreme Court for retention of criminal defamation law, saying without offering a compelling explanation that monetary compensation through civil lawsuits is not a sufficient remedy for damage to a person’s reputation.
Successive Indian governments have failed to protect freedom of expression despite repeated reminders by the courts that it is the state’s responsibility to maintain law and order and that threats to public order cannot be grounds to curtail speech.
While some prosecutions involving sedition, criminal defamation, and other laws documented in the report were dismissed or abandoned in the end, many people who have engaged in nothing more than peaceful speech have been arrested, held in pretrial detention, and subjected to expensive criminal trials. Fear of such actions, combined with uncertainty as to how the statutes will be applied, leads to a chilling environment and self-censorship.
The Indian government should review all these laws, and repeal or amend them to bring them into line with international law and India’s treaty commitments, Human Rights Watch said. Many countries in the region also have anachronistic British colonial laws on the books, and India should lead reform efforts.
“India’s courts have largely been protective of freedom of expression but as long as you have bad laws on the books, free speech will remain under threat,” said Ganguly. “It is an enormous irony that India projects itself worldwide as a government embracing technology and innovation, yet is relying on century-old laws to clamp down on critics. India has an opportunity and the responsibility to launch reforms immediately, which could set a positive example to other countries in the region similarly bogged down by antiquated laws.”
Recommendations for India:
- Develop a clear plan and timetable for the repeal or amendment of laws that criminalize peaceful expression;
- Drop all pending charges and investigations against those who are facing prosecution for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression and assembly; and
- Train the police to ensure inappropriate cases are not filed with courts. Train judges on peaceful expression standards so that they dismiss cases that infringe on protected speech.