It is among the ironies of the times that President Recip Tayyip Erdogan of the (formerly Kemalist) Republic of Turkey has been celebrated across the globe for his zeal in ensuring punishment to the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was also a Washington Post columnist. Even as Erdogan fulminated about what happened to Khashoggi, and it must be admitted that the details concerning his end were gruesome in the extreme, the President of Turkey was jailing or otherwise intimidating hundreds of journalists in his own country. Their crime was that they did not share the same feelings for Erdogan as his admirers did, and were incautious enough to say that publicly. However, Erdogan is scarcely alone in his trampling on the rights of the media to report the truth as they fathom it. In the Philippines, an entrepid journalist, Maria Ressa, was imprisoned by President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known for his deadly tactics against those he regards as less than respectful of his genius. Just as Jamal Khashoggi had done, Ms Ressa also had worked for a US media outlet, in her case CNN. As a consequence, global attention has been brought to bear on her plight in a manner absent in the travail of hundreds of other journalists, and President Duterte has had to free her on bail in a manner uncharacteristically gentle for the Strongman of Manila. Across the border in Pakistan, those falling into the misfortune of angering the armed forces (especially the ISI) usually pay with their lives, although sometimes they are fortunate enough to lose simply their property and their freedom. In India as well, several mediapersons have been sent to jail or murdered, with Gauri Lankesh being an example of such a fate. Thanks to the colonial system of law that has been continued in India even 72 years after the Union Jack was taken down from Rashtrapati Bhavan (then the Viceregal Palace), it is not a difficult task to get an FIR filed against a journalist and subsequently to send him to jail. After the Justice Sawant precedent of endorsing huge sums as compensation was established by no less an institution than the Supreme Court of India, it has become the fashion for the rich and powerful to claim hundreds and even thousands of crores of rupees as punitive damages in cases involving alleged defamation of character. It is a reflection of the continuance of colonial mores even after 15 August 1947 that the first amendment of the Constitution of India saw the dilution of the freedom of speech assured by Article 19, while in the case of the other large democracy, the United States, its own first amendment protected freedom of speech to a degree far in excess of those in democracies where robust protections exist to protect media persons from VIP harassment. Of course, it needs to be added that much of the larger media houses in the US are firmly in the control of big corporates and may be expected to place such interests above those of others.
Recognising that a free media is crucial to the ongoing effort to ensure economic and societal progress in India, civil society needs to come together to devise a Charter of Freedom of Speech that would address some of the constraints to freedom of speech that still exist in India. An example is the law relating to “criminal” defamation, an absurdity in a democracy, and which has been used time and again to seek to silence voices that are inconvenient to established vested interests. It says a lot about the state of transparency in India when even something as important as the Radia tapes in the understanding of how government policies get aligned towards specific rather than the general interests, remains consigned to the deep vaults of secrecy of the institutions of state rather than be made accessible to the people as a whole. The Supreme Court of India needs to take the lead in reading down and in other ways removing restrictions on freedom of speech in India, the way it has in the matter of interpersonal relations. Victorian-era laws remained that gave the police powers of intervention even in the bedroom of a citizen, but in accordance with the need of the times, it was finally not the Government of India but the Supreme Court that struck down such antediluvian writs. Citizens look forward to the day when freedom of speech will be protected in India in much the same robust fashion as they are in the United States.