PUCL Bulletin, April 1991

Freedom of Information and Expression in India

(We publish below excerpts of a report from London-based ARTICLE 19 of October 1990 - Editor)

In December 1987, there were more than 24,000 newspapers and magazines, including more than 2,000 daily papers, in 92 languages. Leadership of daily papers has remained at around 0.2 per cent of the population, or about 17 million; in 1985 total circulation of all papers and magazines was 64 million. While most of the papers and magazines are under individual ownership; most of the largest papers are published by publication groups, four of which are particularly influential: the Times of India Group, the Indian Express Group, the Hindustan Times Group, and the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group.

The growth of a thriving press has been inhibited by barriers caused by religious, social, and linguistic differences. Consequently, the English - language press, with its primarily educated, middle-class, and urban readership, has retained the widest circulation. The Indian languages dailies appeal to the increasingly literate provincial population and, in addition, a few have attracted substantial readership in Delhi and Bombay. The Hindi Navbharat Times, with a circulation in 1989 of over 250,000, and the Bengali Ananda Bazar Patrika rival the distribution of the largest English language papers.

The government of Rajiv Gandhi took various measures to curtail freedom of the press, most of which were rebuffed. In July 1988, Gandhi's administration, injured by revelations of the Bofors affair and other corruption, introduced a defamation bill which sought to create new offences of "criminal imputation" and "scurrilous writings". A highly successful nationwide strike by the newspaper industry and increasingly strident popular protests forced Gandhi to withdraw the bill. He government was also forced to withdraw a bill, proposed in 1988, that would have given the central government authority to collect extensive technical and financial information from newspaper and book publishers. The Gandhi government exerted considerable pressure during 1988 and 1989 on newspapers critical of the ruling party and its leaders.

For several years, the government has tightly controlled the production, importation, and distribution of newsprint. In June 1989 the government raised the prices of both domestic and imported newsprint so sharply that the survival of many newspapers was threatened. Various observers accused the State Trading Corporation of India, which has a monopoly over newsprint imports, of profiteering in an essential commodity. The government has consistently rejected demands by newspapers for permission to import newsprint directly.

P.L. Lakhanpal, a Stockholm-based journalist and writer of Indian birth, was denied a visa to visit India in January 1989. The denial was widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting from Sweden on the Bofors arms scandal. For many years foreign journalists have been included in the restrictions on the entry of non-Indian into the seven north-eastern states. These restrictions range from the requirement that visitors obtain a special permit to visit wildlife parks in Assam to outright bans in Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh. In July 1990 a proposal was made by the seven state governments to lift the bans, but as of October no action has been taken by the central authorities.

Near the beginning of its period in office, the government of V.P.Singh announced its commitment to promoting freedom of information and appointed a Cabinet committee, consisting of the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, the Minister of Surface Transport, and-the Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission to study means by which to accomplish this goal. To the great disappointment of advocates of information freedom, the committee was dissolved on August 27 1990 without issuing a report or making any recommendations. The National Front government has continued the practices of prior governments concerning control of newsprint. However, because there has been an adequate supply of newsprint for the past year, albeit at prices that press advocates consider excessive, the government's newsprint policy has not led to significant criticism. Indian customs officials in New Delhi impounded 10,000 copies of the February 5 1990 issue of Newsweek magazine. The issue included a map showing northern Kashmir as part of Pakistan. On April 9 1990, the National Front government promised to amend the Official Secrets Act to facilitate greater access to information held by the government. At the beginning of September the Minister of Information, P. Upendra, repeated the pledge, but no action has been initiated towards this end.

Also on April 9, the National Front government announced that it intended to amend the law to prohibit phone tapping for political purposes. A Central Bureau of Investigation report on the subject has been submitted to the government, but as of September the government had not introduced a bill in Parliament. However, the government did withdraw a proposed amendment to the Indian Post Office Act which would have given wide powers to both central and state governments to "intercept, detain or dispose" of postal articles.

Despite its reported interference with AIR and Doordarsan on various occasions, the new government has initiated steps to grant them a measure of autonomy. The Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha in September 1990 (but currently facing substantial opposition in the upper house), would establish an autonomous corporation to run radio and TV on the British Broadcasting Corporation model. The corporation, which would not begin operation before mid-1991, would be accountable to Parliament and directed by an independent board of governors drawn from media professionals whose appointments would be insulated from government interference. A Broadcasting Council would be established to examine complaints against the corporation and of unfairness or bias in programmes.

Literary and Artistic Expression
In September1988, India Today and Sunday published interviews with Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British author, about his forthcoming novel The Satanic Verses. Khurshid Alam Khan and Syed Shahbuddin, Muslim Members of Parliament, began a vigorous campaign to ban the book. Aslam Ejaz of the Islamic Foundation in Madras wrote to Faiyazuddin Ahmad, of the Foundations UK office, suggesting that he launch a similar campaign in Britain. On October 5 1988, the Indian Finance Ministry announced the banning of the book under Section 11 of the Indian Customs Act, adding that the ban "did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie's work". Several leading Indian newspapers and magazines deplored the ban. The Hindu's editorial called it "philistine decision" and The Indian Express called it "thought control". The Economic and Political Weekly of October 22 stated that the ban was a political decision and accused Gandhi of capitulating because of the impending elections. Other critics of the ban pointed out that only a small portion of the English-speaking public in India would read the book even if it were available. Early in 1989 there were several demonstrations against Salman Rushdie and his novel. On February 13, one person was killed and over 100 were injured during a riot in Kashmir. On February 14, Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, declaring a death sentence against Rushdie, and the following day a senior Iranian cleric placed a bounty of US $3 million on his head. On February 24, western India experienced its largest riot in several years when young Muslims in Bombay rioted against the book, destroying considerable property. The police restored order at a cost of at least 12 lives and scores of injuries.

In April 1989, Hindu militants threatened to kill M.M. Kalburgi, an Indian historian, for writing a Kannada-language book they claim blasphemes a 12th century saint. Kalburgi was given 24-hour protection by police in Dharwar in the southern state of Karnataka. A group of 43 Kannada writers and academics formed a committee in support of the book. Also in April 1989, customs authorities blacked out passages critical of Indira Gandhi's regime in 500 imported copies of the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopaedia: World History from 1800 to the Present Day.

Films: On October 27 1989, the government refused to permit broadcasting on national TV of a film about the tragedy that resulted from the explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. The refusal was particularly disappointing in light of the fact that the film had previously won a national award for excellence. The film's backers challenged the refusal in the Delhi High Court. No decision had been reached as of July 1990.

Violations of Freedom of Expression by State and Local Authorities
In recent years, there has been marked increase in the number of attacks on journalists by police and unidentified gunmen, often operating at the behest or with the approval of state or local officials or politicians. In addition, many state and local governments have seriously chilled legitimate exercise of freedom of expression by detaining large numbers of people on scant suspicion of co-operation with militants; mistreating, torturing and, on occasion, killing people held in detention or confronted during "encounters"; using excessive force in disbursing peaceful demonstrations; and other unlawful methods of harassment and intimidation.

Journalists concerned about the mounting attacks on members of the profession drew little comfort from the assurances in 1988 of India's Deputy Minister of Information that letters had been sent to state chief ministers asking them to give protection to journalists. Only one month later, in the wake of an incident in which reporters and photographers were beaten by police outside the state government building in Bombay, the Maharashtra Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar, denied having received any letter on the subject.

The Report gives an account of violations of freedom of expression in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast States, the Punjab, Bihar, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamilnadu, U.P. and West Bengal.

Over the years government authorities have prosecuted writers and musicians and banned literature. Vittal (also called Gaddar), a writer of popular political songs, went into hiding after he was charged as part of the Ramnagar conspiracy case. A collection of poems by Vara Vara Rao was proscribed in 1987. His challenge to the banning order is pending in the state High Court.

During the TDP government, many university professors were suspended, reportedly for merely asserting their democratic right to protest. Students Union elections were cancelled at two universities and all students agitations have been suppressed by the police. At Sri Venkateswaran University, students demonstrating for higher scholarships were brutally attacked by police wielding lathis (wooden canes) and arrested under TADA. Mr. A. Subramanyam, a lecturer in law at Nagarjuna University and a Joint Secretary of APCLC, was suspended from his job allegedly for representing striking trade unionists. Other professors who have protested allegedly also have been harassed.

Experts predict that India is on the brink of an AIDS crises of staggering proportions. The chief doctor at the government's only AIDS surveillance centre in Bombay estimates that of the approximately 100,00 prostitutes in Bombay as many as 40 per cent of them may be infected with the AIDS virus. Tests in 1989 of some 12,000 prostitutes showed that the infection rate had risen from under six per cent to 20 per cent in one year. Few of the prostitutes who visit the centre use condoms, and the centre cannot afford to provide them free of cost. The overwhelming number of prostitutes, evens those who have tested positive, continue to engage in unsafe sex. The government maintains that of nearly half a million people tested between 1985 and March 1990, only slightly more than 2,000 tested positive for the HIV virus. Medical experts insist that the government's figures bear little relation to reality. The government's failure to provide adequate testing facilities has permitted widespread contamination of hospital blood, especially outside of Bombay and Delhi. There are tens of thousands of "professional" blood donors in India who give blood on average once a month, accounting for a total of 1.5 million units of blood a year. Although a screening programme begun in 1987 identified hundreds of donors who tested positive, the lack of a co-ordinated system allows most infected donors to continue to donate. Because every blood unit is tested in Bombay, professional donors simply travel 20 miles or so to donate elsewhere. Although government officials tend to view AIDS as a problem of drug users, prostitutes, and the poor, doctors trying to mobilize government action note that blood samples from the so-called five-star hospitals regularly test positive. An initiative by the government of Tamil Nadu in June 1990 to bring home over 800 women and children from Bombay brothels was met with consternation when it was discovered that approximately two-thirds of the returnees were infected with the AIDS virus. Instead of returning the women and children to their homes as originally planned, the Tamil Nadu government confined them to special homes for six weeks, promising to release them after receiving "the required treatment." They were finally released pursuant to the court order.

SOURCES

Court Decision
S.Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram & Ors. 30 March 1989, Judgements Today 1989(2) S.C. 70 1989.

Ramesh v. Union of India, Judgements Today 1988

(1) SC 361 1988(1) SCC 668.

Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra 1988 1 Bom. C.R. 58.

S.P. Gupta v. Union of India AIR 1982 SC 149.

Hamdard Dawakhana v. Union of India AIR 1960 SC 554

Books
Desai, Shobha and Colin Gonsalves, Freedom of the Press, published by A.R. Desai for C.G. Shah Memorial Trust (Bombay, December 1989).

Europa Publications Ltd., The Europa Year Book 1989 A World Survey, pp.1286-1299.

Hingorani, R.C., Human Right in India, published by Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. (New Delhi, Bombay & Calcutta, 1987).

United Nation Reports
Human Rights Committee, Second Periodic Report of States Parties Due in 1985, CCPR/C/37/Add.13, October 5 1990.


Governmental Reports
United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989 (February 1990), pp. 1381-83, 1386-87.

Reports of Non-Governmental Organizations
Amnesty International (London), India: Operation Bluebird, A Case Study of Torture and Extrajudicial Executions in Manipur, October 10 1990.

Amnesty International (London), Weekly Update, October 4 1990.

Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, State of Civil Liberties in Andhra Pradesh, January 1990.

Bombay Union of Journalists, Report of January 3 1989.

Committee for Initiative on Kashmir, India's "Kashmir War" (New Delhi, March 1990); Report on Kashmir (New Delhi, April 1990); Kashmir Imprisoned (New Delhi, July 1990).

Committee for the Protection of Journalists (New York) Update No.39 (August 1990), pp.10-11.

Index on Censorship, volume 18, no.8.

India Information Centre, State Terrorism in Punjab: An Investigative Report, January 1989.

Kashmir Council for Human Rights, Kashmir: An Unresolved International Dispute, 1990.

People's Union for Civil Liberties, PUCL Bulletin, September 1989, March 1990.

Newspaper and Journal Articles
Asian Times (London), several issues from April to September 1990.

Daity Telegraph (London), May 11 1990, May 22 1990.

Far Eastern Economic Review (London), pp. 12-13, May 31, 1990.

Financial Times (London), April 18 1990, May 15 1990, May 31 1990, September 27 1990, September 29, 1990.

The Hindu (Madras), June 7 1990.

Hindustan Times, April 19 1990.

Independent (London), May 2 1990, May 23 1990, June 6 1990, June 8 1990.

India Mail (London), several issues from April to July 1990.

Indian Express (Delhi), numerous issue from 1990.

India Today, September 15 1990, September 30, 1990.

International Herald Tribune, May 22 1990.

Media Watch, August 18 1990.

New Life, September 7, 1990.

New York Times, October, 1990.

Statesman (Delhi), March 28 1990.

Statesman Weekly (Calcutta).

Sunday Statesman, numerous issues from 1990.

Time, August 13 1990.

Times of India, January 5 1990, July 9 1990, July 11 1990.

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