Protecting free speech & free media

Objectives:

Certain draconian legislations such as sedition, blasphemy and censorship laws are often invoked by state agencies in a bid to curb media freedom and free speech. Further, in the last 2-3 years, there has been an increasing use of strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) by corporates to intimidate and silence media initiatives, especially investigative journalism, by burdening them with the cost of protracted legal battles and threat of huge payouts.

There is no institutional framework for accountability of the media and licensing powers vest exclusively with the government thereby allowing it to wield influence over the media. The public broadcaster is also within the control of the government, thereby thwarting any meaningful, independent reportage.

In areas of civil unrest, it has become the norm for governments to arbitrarily shut down communication including the internet and WhatsApp, with no checks and balances in place.

Specific legislative amendments are, therefore, required to address these issues.

Action points:

5.1 Repeal or appropriately amend all laws and rules which put arbitrary curbs on free speech including: criminal defamation, sedition, blasphemy, criminal contempt of legislature and judiciary (other than issues that hinder administration of justice), curbs on broadcast of news on radio.

5.2 Remove all forms of pre-censorship and certification for films, theatres, performances etc.

5.3 Set up mechanisms (by bringing appropriate legislation or executive orders) to safeguard against arbitrary internet shut downs and provide for appropriate checks and balances to regulate the government’s authority.

5.4 Introduce, through open discussions and pre-legislative deliberations, a Media Freedom Bill along the lines of the First Amendment in the US which guarantees Freedom of Expression and automatically removes any arbitrary laws.

5.5 Set up an independent, statutory licensing and regulatory authority, free from government control (for media policy matters i.e. distribution, cross media restrictions, etc.).

5.6 Set up an independent, statutory complaints authority to address issues of fake news, paid news, distribution of government advertisements and set up an appropriate mechanism to make news media accountable to Indian jurisdiction across platforms.

5.7 Ensure independence of public service broadcasters in terms of functions, functionaries and funds by appropriately amending the Prasar Bharti Act and the statutes/rules governing Rajya Sabha TV, Lok Sabha TV and other public-funded media outlets.