All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1989

Free Speech: An Endangered Species in India

Mr. Prasad, who immigrated from India in 1975, is a free-lance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

“The government must have realized the folly of making an attempt to steal through parliament a piece of legislation that sought to deny 800 million people of this land the right of expression,” said H. K. Dua, editor of Hindustan Times. He was referring to an anti-defamation bill that came close to becoming law in the summer of 1988. According to India Today, the ruling Congress (!) Party pushed the bill through parliament with the help of its “brute majority.”

This bill placed the entire burden of proof on the accused in defamation suits. If a politician or bureaucrat disliked what was written in a newspaper, he could use poorly defined terms (which were included in the bill) like “grossly indecent,” “scurrilous,” or “intended for blackmail” to cook up charges against the journalist. The bill also provided for summary trials and prescribed a minimum period of imprisonment for journalists who wrote “defamatory matter.”

In the past, few Indians questioned whether it was proper for government to control the flow of information in a democracy. This bill shocked many out of their complacency. After a month-long struggle—which included a three-mile protest march—the anti-defamation bill was withdrawn.

By their silent acquiescence, the majority of Indians have empowered their government to attain complete control over the broadcast media. The government created the Information and Broadcasting Ministry shortly after India gained independence in 1947. This ministry inherited the nation’s only radio network, which it has operated ever since. No other radio stations are allowed. When television became the dominant mass medium, the same pattern was repeated. In addition, the Indian government produces news footage that must be shown in every theater before the main feature.

Politicians and bureaucrats turned radio and television into propaganda outlets for the government. All India Radio was nicknamed “All-Indira Radio” during the reign of Prime Minister In-dira Gandhi. In a recent interview, Krishna Kumar, Minister of State in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, said: “The government’s achievements have to be projected. This is the legitimate work of the Information and Broadcast ing Ministry.”

Indian television bombards the viewer with images of prosperity. Almost every day, cabinet members are shown opening steel mills or switching on irrigation dams. But if the country is progressing at such a rapid pace, why are so many Indians living in utter poverty?

Officials use the same media to blame uncontrollable forces such as droughts, overpopulation, lack of natural resources, or even plots by foreign governments to explain the problems at home. Opposing arguments are not to be heard. Kumar also claims that Indian television has to emphasize values like secularism. At 9:30 each Sunday morning, this high-sounding ideal acquires a hollow tone. This is when hundreds of millions of Indians gather around their television sets to watch the Hindu epic, Ramayan. All the voices that protested this governmental promotion of one religion over others have been drowned out.

Print media serve the Indian public as an alternative to government-controlled radio and television. This is not to say that the newspapers are entirely free. The ruling party holds substantial control over the written word through its ability to allocate newsprint, government advertising revenues, and even leases on newspaper build ings. A few journalists have tried to maintain their independence. But they are well aware that dissidents are usually brought into line by private and public harassments.

Indian politicians, however, aren’t happy with their partial control over the newspapers. Embarrassed by repeated disclosures, such as the recent arms-purchase scandals, the Congress (I) Party tried to pass the anti- defamation bill and incorporate the print medium into their propaganda machine.

Some people argue that India, with its overwhelming poverty and illiteracy, has no use for ideas like free speech. However, they delude themselves into believing that surrendering these rights will somehow produce economic prosperity and social equity.

In any country without a free press, corporations—which provide badly needed capital and technology—will be at the mercy of an all-power-ful bureaucracy. In the event of a dispute, government officials can easily prevent investors from presenting their side of the story. When Indira Gandhi kicked IBM out of India, for example, there was hardly any protest.

Newspapers in India, which must compete for readers, do a much better job of reporting than radio or television. Literate Indians look to newspapers for accurate information. Privatization of the broadcast media would extend this ability to the 60 percent of Indians who can neither read nor write.