Censorship of the arts and media: India

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No end to persecution of artists

From the archives of The Times of India 2010

Dhananjay Mahapatra

Persecution is older than history. It is probably as old as civilization. Every period in history is replete with instances of persecution, mainly aimed at hindering free expression of ideas.

In India, artists and authors continue to suffer for giving wings to their expression. M F Husain is the latest to join the long list. Numerous talented Indians have become NRIs but no one attracted as much attention as Husain did after being conferred the honorary citizenship of Qatar.

He symbolizes persecution at the hands of a few intolerant zealots and, unfortunately, the governments and courts have done precious little to give a sense of security to this celebrated painter, who has been conferred all three Padma awards and had been once nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

Probably, he would have loved to live with his paintings in an era when the temples at Konark and Khajuraho were built. Those were the times when freedom of expression reigned supreme.

Sadly, the governments have mainly been silent spectators to the persecution of writers, authors and artists. Frustratingly, they even registered cases against them to assuage the feelings of violent protesters. It is the Supreme Court which has always spoken out boldly against such mindless hounding of artists and authors by mobs blinded by religion and culture.

K A Abbas faced the wrath of the censor board in 1971 for his documentary ‘‘A Tale of Four Cities’’, which attempted to portray the contrast between the lives of rich and poor in the four metros. It also contained fleeting shots of Mumbai’s red-light area, which the censor board thought should be edited out. And despite the cuts, the film was given Adults Only certificate. When Abbas moved the apex court seeking U certification for his documentary, the government made a U-turn and agreed to the demand. But the SC went on to make scathing remarks about the super-sensitivity of the censor board members.

It said, ‘‘If Nadir Shah made golgothas of skulls, must we leave them out of the story because people must be made to view a historical theme without true history?’’ This remark could well have served as the defence for Bhisham Sahni’s powerful novel ‘‘Tamas’’, later made into a TV-series, which vividly depicted Hindu-Muslim and Sikh-Muslim tensions just before Partition and how it culminated in killings and looting in Lahore prior to Independence. Petitions were filed in the Bombay high court and the Supreme Court seeking a ban on its telecast in 1987.

Both the HC and the apex court were unanimous that the TV-serial was not to be banned. In its 1988 judgment [Ramesh Chotalal Dalal vs Union of India], the SC quoted the standard laid down by celebrated judge Vivian Bose in the case of Bhagwati Charan Shukla in 1947. Justice Bose had said, ‘‘The effect of the words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view.’’ Applying this standard, the Supreme Court said telecast of Tamas was not going to hurt sentiments, but could help educate people not to repeat the past.

Courts, superior: verdicts of

SC: Courts should be extremely slow in curbing artistic freedom

Dhananjay Mahapatra, SC tells courts: Be extremely slow to curb artistic freedom, November 17, 2017: The Times of India

‘Thought-Provoking Film Need Not Be Puritanical’

The Supreme Court said that courts must be “extremely slow” to interfere with artistic freedom in works like films and rejected a plea to ban the November 17 release of a film, ‘An Insignificant Man’, based on the life of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal.

A three-judge bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud appeared to rebut violent elements protesting against the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film ‘Padmavati’ when it said: “A thought-provoking film does not mean it should be puritanical. A film has to be expressive to provoke the conscious and subconscious mind of a viewer.” Last week, the court had dismissed a petition seeking a stay on the release of Padmavati, saying it was an issue squarely within the adjudication domain of the Central Board of Film Certification and the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.

The bench said: “The courts should be extremely slow in passing any kind of restraint or order stopping a creative man from writing drama, a book, philosophy or projecting his thoughts in a film or theatre art.” It disposed of the petition relating to ‘An Insignificant Man’ while clarifying that the trial court would decide the case on merit.The film was objected to by Nachiketa Walhekar, who is facing trial for allegedly throwing ink at the AAP chief in 2013. His counsel said the film incorporated electronic media recordings of the alleged incident to project Kejriwal as a victim, and hence violated his client’s right to a fair trial.

Apex court: Right to freedom of speech sacrosanct

He said filmmakers should either delete the TV footage from the film or put a bold disclaimer about the alleged offence being under the scrutiny of a court.The bench refused to heed these arguments and remained focused on its respect for the right to free speech and expression. The CJI said, “It is worthy to mention that right to freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct and should not be ordinarily interfered with. When the CBFC has granted permission for the release of the film after scrutiny, this court should exercise utmost restraint in not granting any injunction.”

Given the vulnerability of writers, authors, filmmakers and novelists at the hands of dogmatic groups capable of violently airing disagreement with artistic expression, it said, “Be it noted that any film, drama, theatre or novel is a creation of artistic expression. An artist has freedom to express himself/ herself in a manner which is not prohibited in law.” SC went a step further and said even the prohibitive areas of freedom of speech and expression, specified under Article19(2) of the Constitution, could not be a ground to kill artistic creativity. “Such prohibition is not meant to crucify the right of an expressive mind,” it said. “History of the world records there are authors who expressed thoughts by choosing words, phrases and expressions to create characters who may look very different than what an ordinary man can conceive. A thought-provoking film does not mean it should be in every way puritanical.”


`Over 5,800 pieces of content blocked on govt request between July & Dec 2014'

The Times of India

2014: Data and censorship requests made by India and some other countries to Facebook

Mar 17 2015

Kim Arora

Facebook blocked 5,832 pieces of content in India on government request between July and Dec last year. In its Global Government Requests report released on Monday, it confirmed some of the content restricted was antireligious and those likely to cause unrest. “We restricted access in India to content reported primarily by law enforcers and the India Computer Emergency Response Team within the ministry of communications and IT,“ the report said.

India stands second after the US in a list of countries for the number of government requests to Facebook during this period. The company didn't specify the nature of requests but a BJP official said most of them dealt with concerns over national security. In the first half of 2014 too, India held the same rank.

Between July and December 2014, India made 5,473 requests referencing 7,281 accounts. US topped with 14,274 requests, referencing 21,731 accounts but Facebook reported no content curbs. Facebook produced “some data“ (basic subscriber details) in 44.7% of Indian requests. The percentage for the US stood at 79.1%. The third largest number of requests, 2,366, came from the UK referencing 2,890 accounts and three restrictions. India is Fa cebook's second-largest market after US and Canada with 118 million monthly active users and 300 million Net users.

Explaining the curbs, BJP IT cell convener Arvind Gupta said the number of requests and content restricted is a function of the number of users. “Facebook users in the country have grown.India is the second biggest market for Facebook. These numbers should be seen in this context,“ he said, adding, “About 30% of requests from India are responded to.“ Fact is, the US has no curbs that FB reported despite making the maximum requests.

In a co-written blog , Facebook's head of global policy management Monika Bickert wrote that globally , content restricted for violating local law had increased by 11% over the first half of 2014. In his Facebook post co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said they must respond to government requests because if they don't and if that results in service being blocked, user “voices would be muted“.

The consolidated figures barely represent the real picture, experts say . “We'd like more information...on content taken down, who those requests come from, their decision-making process.Transparency is important at government and company level if we have to fight censorship,“ says Mishi Choudhary , legal director, Software Freedom Law Center.

Sunil Abraham of Bengaluru's Centre for Internet and Society , too, says there's much the report hides. “The India data doesn't clarify if the content curbs come from the Centre, states, police, courts or authorities under Sec 69A (IT Act),“ he said.

I&B Ministry’s powers

As in 2022

Krishn Kaushik, February 8, 2022: The Indian Express

In which sectors can the I&B Ministry regulate content?

Until last year, it had the powers to regulate content across all sectors — TV channels, newspapers and magazines, movies in theatres and on TV, and the radio — barring the internet. On February 25, 2021, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, extended its regulatory powers over internet content too, especially on digital news platforms and OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hotstar.

What kind of powers does it have?

On paper, these are limited. How the ministry wields those powers, however, is what gives it a much broader scope of what it wishes to allow on any platform.

For example, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has a mandate to give any film that will be played in a theatre, a rating indicating the kind of audience it is suitable for. For example, a movie with sensitive or sexual content would get an adults-only certificate. In practice, however, the CBFC has often suggested changes or cuts to a film before giving it a certification. While it isn’t the CBFC’s mandate to censor a film, it can withhold giving a rating unless the filmmaker agrees to its suggestions.

When it comes to TV channels, the government last year came up with a three-tier grievance redressal structure for viewers to raise concerns, if any. A viewer can successively approach the channel, then a self-regulatory body of the industry, and finally the I&B Ministry, which can issue a showcause notice to the channel, and then refer the issue to an inter-ministerial committee (IMC). For content on OTT platforms too, there is a similar structure.

The ministry has in the past issued orders to temporarily ban news and other channels, including a 48-hour ban on Media One two years ago, along with AsiaNet for their reporting of the Delhi riots. In November 2016, it imposed a one-day ban on NDTV for its reporting of the Pathankot terror attack.

The ministry also has the Electronic Media Monitoring Cell, which tracks channels for any violations of the programming and advertising codes mentioned in the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994. Violation can lead to revocation of a channel’s uplinking licence (for sending content to a satellite) or downlinking licence (for broadcasting to viewers through an intermediary). It is these licences of MediaOne that the government revoked.

In print, based on the recommendations of the Press Council of India, the government can suspend its advertising to a publication.

And last year’s IT rules allow the I&B Ministry to issue orders to ban websites based on their content.

What kind of content is not allowed?

There are no specific laws on content allowed or prohibited in print and electronic media, radio, films or OTT platforms. The content on any of these platforms has to follow the free speech rules of the country. Article 19(1) of the Constitution, while protecting the freedom of speech, also lists certain “reasonable restrictions” including content related to the security of the state, friendly relationship with foreign states, public order, decency and morality etc.

Action can be taken if any of these restrictions is violated. There have been several instances when cases have been filed against filmmakers, channels etc for other alleged offences such as hurting religious sentiments.

In January 2021, Tandav on Amazon Prime became the first show on an OTT platform to edit out scenes after direct intervention by the I&B Ministry. After complaints that certain scenes hurt religious and caste sentiments, the government called a meeting with the show’s makers. This happened when the new IT Rules were still a month away from being issued.

Do other agencies play a role?

There is no direct involvement, as the powers to regulate content rest only with the I&B Ministry. However, the ministry relies on inputs from other ministries, as well as intelligence agencies.

In of Media One’s case, its licences were revoked because the Home Ministry had denied it security clearance, which is essential as part of the policy. I&B Minister Anurag Thakur told a delegation of Lok Sabha members from Kerala that they should meet Home Minister Amit Shah regarding this issue. There is also a new mechanism the I&B Ministry adopts: It has used emergency powers it has under the new IT Rules to block certain YouTube channels and social media accounts based on inputs from intelligence agencies.

In December and January the I&B Ministry issued orders to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to ban over 60 YouTube channels and social media accounts, based on inputs from intelligence agencies. I&B Secretary Apurva Chandra said in January that Pakistan-based channels were banned for their anti-India content.

He said “intelligence agencies are now alive to this issue”, and even asked that people send inputs for any channels or websites involved in propagating such content. He said the ministry had used its emergency powers to get these accounts banned. This happened even before the inter-departmental committee could sit. The recourse available to anyone whose channel or account has been banned, I&B officials said, would be to go to the courts.


HC rejects move to censor non film songs/ 2023

January 28, 2023: The Times of India

New Delhi : The Delhi high court has dismissed a PIL seeking a regulatory authority or censor board to review and censor non-film songs — contents, lyrics and videos — before their release. It ha d also sought a ban on all songs with “obscene/vulgar” content.

Observing that there is “no merit” in the plea, a division bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad said in its order that there is a clear regulation/regime laid down by the Centre to regulate information/content on variousmedia platforms. The court ci ted the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, as an example.

The bench held that accepting the plea’s contention would result in “legislation by this court, which is not permissible in the constitutional scheme ”. The petition, filed by one Neha Kapoor, had listed “television, YouTube, etc” among the media platforms and sought directives for composers of non-film songs to receive certification before release.



Bombay Police Act: “pre-censorship“ of plays

Rosy Sequeira, `Pre-censorship' of plays to go on in Maha, Sep 14, 2017: The Times of India

Bombay high court refused to stay an amendment to the Bombay Police Act, 1951, which makes “pre-censorship“ of plays mandatory in Maharashtra. But the high court expedited final hearing of a petition by actor Amol Palekar challenging validity of a section of the Act under which the police commissioner framed rules in 1973 requiring that all theatre performances be scrutinised by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board. The court posted the hearing in December, sought the state's reply, saying “at this stage, we do not find it appropriate to stay the impugned Act and rules“.

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