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India: Freedom of speech & expression in peril

To be a political cartoonist in India today

Thursday 9 November 2017, by siawi3


Freedom of speech & expression in peril

THE HANS INDIA | Nov 08,2017 , 11:35 PM IST
.By Kankata Raja Ram

The arrest of Tamil cartoonist G Bala for posting a cartoon on his web portal, Media Lines, in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu has once again brought the issue of freedom of expression on the cyber space to the forefront.

Going by the spate of arrests on account of social media posts, it is feared that there is a serious threat to the freedom of speech and expression from the governments that are showing increasing intolerance towards the social media posts.

Bala was arrested on a complaint lodged by none other than the District Collector, Sandeep Nanduri, who felt the cartoon in question as ‘highly defamatory’ and ‘objectionable’ and that it ‘obscenely depicted’ the district Collector, Superintendent of Police and the Chief Minister.

The cartoon was in the backdrop of immolation of a farmer’s family at the Tirunelveli district Collectorate on October 23 this year. The family took the extreme step harassed by the moneylenders.

The controversial cartoon was shared by the cartoonist on his Facebook page and in many Whatsapp groups enraging the officials and the politicians alike and he was arrested under Section 67 of the IT Act and the Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code.

The arrest of cartoonist Bala is not an isolated case and it is well part of a series of arrests of dissenting voices that are loud on the social media. In the same State, one Thirumurugan was recently arrested in Srivilliputhur for making ‘abusive’ and ‘obscene’ comments against the Prime Minister in a Facebook post posted by one of his friends. He made those ‘offensive’ comments in a Facebook post that was related to the controversial dialogues on the GST in Joseph Vijay-starrer Tamil movie – Mersal.

The suspension of a bus conductor by the Telangana State Road Transport Authority (TSRTC) in Nizamabad town of the Telangana State for criticising the RTC and the State government has also resulted in a fresh debate over the freedom of speech in the social media arena.

The bus conductor, G Sanjeev, the Secretary of the Staff and Workers Federation of the TSRTC, has been raising issues, which the officials of the TSRTC felt as deviating from the Conduct Rules of the Corporation and, hence, the consequent suspension.

Similar arrest of one Inturi Ravi Kiran by the Andhra Pradesh police earlier this year for his ‘defamatory’ and ‘obscene’ depiction of State legislature and the AP Minister Nara Lokesh has raised the issues of freedom of expression on the cyber space.

Ravi Kiran, who runs a website named Political Punch has been particularly targeting the AP Chief Minister’s son Nara Lokesh through his cartoons. He was arrested on a complaint lodged by AP Assembly secretary Satyanarayana Rao who complained that the controversial cartoon posted by Ravi Kiran was ‘highly derogatory’ of the State Assembly and Legislative Council.

Ravi Kiran was arrested under the Section 67 of the IT ACT (Punishment for publishing or circulating obscene material in electronic form) and Section 292 of the IPC. The arrest of Ravi Kiran who is a political satirist has also led to the allegations and counter allegations between the ruling Telugu Desam Party and the main Opposition YSRCP, which the TDP has alleged is funding the accused.

There were also similar arrests earlier too like the arrest of the political cartoonist and internet freedom activist Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai earlier this year. He was arrested on charges of sedition, cybercrime, and insulting the national flag, Parliament and the Constitution through his cartoons. His website “Cartoons against Corruption†too was banned by the Maharashtra police.

Aseem Trivedi’s case has also attracted criticism from the law fraternity for showing the Parliament and the Constitution in ‘poor light’ by the accused. The arrest of another cartoonist, Harish Yadav, a cartoonist with Prabhat Kiran in Indore of Gujarat for depicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat then in 2012, was also an issue of contention.

He was arrested for a cartoon on Narendra Modi against the backdrop of his refusal to wear a skull cap offered by a Muslim cleric during his fast in Gujarat when he was the chief minister.

Interestingly, the cartoonist was booked and arrested on a complaint lodged by a Muslim cleric who alleged that his religious feelings were hurt by the controversial cartoon. Yadav was booked under Section 295 A of the IPC (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any religious class and its beliefs).

Even if the cartoons and postings in question are a bit unacceptable, whether the arrests are the only way to deal with such postings is a big question now. (The author teaches Journalism at Telangana University, Nizamabad)