Thursday, February 26, 2009

The concept of free speech and the internet

A very interesting debate is on in the blogosphere around freedom of speech with responsibility and accountability. TOI reported that a 19-year old blogger has been charged with a criminal offense for an offensive comment left by an anonymous against Shiv-senas.

Petitioner Ajith D had started a community on Orkut against Shiv Sena. In this community, there were several posts and discussions by anonymous persons who alleged that Shiv Sena was trying to divide the country on region and caste basis.

Reacting to these posts, the Shiv Sena youth wing's state secretary registered a criminal complaint at Thane police station in August 2008 based on which FIR was registered against Ajith under Sections 506 and 295A pertaining to hurting public sentiment.

...After getting anticipatory bail from Kerala HC, Ajith moved the SC to quash the complaint on the ground that the contents did not have defamation value.

Dragon Fly contains a scathing criticism of the SC’s move. ‘‘Totalitarianism is official now, you may have the ways to express but you cannot express and if you do, be prepared to face the consequences,’’ it says. ‘‘The issue of hurting public sentiments is a bit crap idea. What will not hurt the public sentiments? If someone raises the issue of legalizing prostitution, it hurts public sentiments, if someone raises issue of legalizing alcohol, drugs or even abortions it hurts public sentiments.’’

It might seem ridiculous that a brand like shivsena has to waste their time behind a small time blogger considering their moral policing stand and region based fanaticism and the rave reviews they have got from all around, not just bloggers.

TOI quotes the SC,

"We cannot quash criminal proceedings. You are a computer student and you know how many people access internet portals. Hence, if someone files a criminal action on the basis of the content, then you will have to face the case. You have to go before the court and explain your conduct."

The Bench also added,

"You should not have indulged in such activity. You are a student of IT. You are doing something on internet and you should know about it," the Bench said refusing the plea of his lawyer that there was any malafide intention in putting the contents on the internet.

The Bench remained unmoved by the submission that if the case was not quashed, similar cases could be registered in other states and even in foreign countries. "If a case is filed in a foreign country go and face it. You should know what you are doing on internet," the Bench observed.

This brings us to the question of what kind of freedom of expression is within my rights and what is not. I would think I should be allowed to show my support or protest against a political party, establishment, cause or individual as far as I do not cause anybody any physical harm. As a citizen of this country why can't I question the credentials of a media person, an activist, a group, an individual holding or hoping to hold a government position whose job or actions concerns me directly or indirectly. I should be able to raise my concerns, questions using any medium of expression freely. No argument should be headed towards a Big Daddy answer 'because I told you so and you can not question me'. Works only with 5 years old and I doubt it works completely at that age as well. I raise concerns and voice causes because I care for this country. I raise it with whatever limited knowledge I have. The cause I fight for or a campaign I support might not end up with offenders behind bars, or the cause being discussed in the parliament but if the campaign finds enough strength and louder voices, you better take notice. We elected you not to rule us but to serve us, to address our grievances.

Amit Varma of Indiauncut has done a couple of post on freedom of expression in the past which has convinced me that a 'freedom of expression with caveat like responsibility/accountability" will never work and will always be abused under one pretext or the other. Only "freedom of expression with no caveats" can work. In an earlier post I pointed out to an article by Johann Hari, who points out how the defenders of freedom of expression turn out to oppose freedom of expression because of the caveats inserted by religious leaders.

Sanjukta welcomes the SC decision and adds

This would help clean up a lot of shit that goes around the blogsphere, will help us become more responsible and mature writers thereby establishing credibility for bloggers’ opinion and most importantly it would kill the terrible habit of writing all kinds of indecent, uncivilized, abusive things anonymously in the comments thread.

I have discovered a lot of good blogs and bad blogs. I subscribe to the ones I like reading, I forget the ones I do not like. "Indecent, uncivilized & abusive" writings are so, in your perspective, but they could mean differently to a different lot. It is difficult to ring fence blogs as good or bad, its just a matter of personal choice. Abusive or indecent stuff in the comments, is sometimes just for kicks & for laughs. Ignore or Delete it. Why should x be held guilty because Y wanted to kill z and said so on x's blog. Just because X prevented Y from writing it on his blog does not mean Y's intent disappeared. How different would India then be from a communist China? How is this different from people & countries who ban Salman Rushdie and Taslima because they wrote and challenged stereotypes in a religion?

Sanjukta also adds

you cannot just go about blabbing whatever comes to your mind without giving it a second thought, for eg @Gmishra says, “Who defines responsibility? or the border line! Does SC understands blogosphere good enough to judge us ?” This man can actually be booked under contempt of court for suggesting, Supreme Court is incapable of judging a case infront of it.

Maybe SC can book us under contempt of court today, I am not sure. But I don't quite like it that way. As a citizen of this country why should I not be able to voice my dissatisfaction with the verdict freely. It should be perfectly within my rights.

Dhananjay makes a point while he defends the SC's verdict

All that the court has said is that one cannot escape from being accountable for expressions and thus present themselves to defend themselves. That's perfectly reasonable. However it could indirectly hurt freedom of expression due to the burden it places in terms of defense. Defending oneself in a remote state can be an act of punishment itself which could dilute the very strengths the constitutional rights sought to promote. That part does worry me.

But the core of the matter still is one shouldn't be punished for having an opinion. It could be an aggressive one, it could be assertive, it could be provocative but those are just varied styles of expression. People causing physical harm or loss should be punished and not people who write about how they feel. Patrix from Nerve endings firing away says it way better than I do. Please hop over for a decent argument in defence of freedom of expression.

Don't punish people for having opinions and ideas. Punish the culprits who molest women on the road, who destroy public property, who moral police the country. If it helps, please get a blog, a orkut or facebook profile and keep off the roads. That way we can have a blog war and not a drop of blood.

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