Speaking of Freedom of Speech

“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.” –George Washington

The importance of the freedom of speech is underestimated by most people.

George Washington stressed the instrumental role of the freedom of speech — as a defense against oppression. But freedom of speech, like the right to be left alone, is also something of value in and of itself, even if there was no possibility of being oppressed.

I wrote this piece for India Current (June 2016 issue). I reproduce it here, for the record.

Speaking of Freedom of Speech

Many of my NRIs friends, generally a well-informed group, are often surprised to learn that their resident Indian cousins don’t have the kind of freedom of speech they routinely enjoy in the US. They assume quite reasonably that in India too, just like in the US — both celebrated as exemplars of robust democracy — there are constitutional guarantees against governmental restrictions on the freedom of speech and the press. This is unfortunately not so.

Some time ago, while discussing the details of the content the editorial staff of an Indian newspaper would expect in a column, I was told that I was free to write about anything I wanted. But I was cautioned to stay clear of any criticism of the powers that be. Not just in general terms, I was told not to find fault with two specific politicians in power, whom I cannot name here for obvious reasons (privacy being only one of them.)

That happens in India but will not happen in the US. Here’s why.

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”
–US 1st Amendment

The difference arises from the constitutions of the two. The First Amendment to the US Constitution (the first of 10 items that is the US “Bill of Rights”) states, in part, that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .” The important bit is that the US constitution does not grant the freedom of speech because that freedom is not for it to grant or withhold. The freedom of speech exists prior to the constitution; the amendment merely recognizes that fact by explicitly prohibiting any law that may tamper with it.

As it happens, the First Amendment to the Indian constitution, introduced by Mr J. Nehru in 1950 also, among other matters, deals with the freedom of speech and of the press. There are two major distinctions, though. First, I cannot quote the Indian amendment in its entirety here. The US 1st amendment is only 45 words long and is in plain English; the Indian counterpart is around 1750 words of impenetrable legalese.

Second, the Indian amendment grants the right to free speech. What the constitution grants, the constitution can also take away. In the finer details it says in essence that Indians are free to speak or write whatever they wish — provided the government agrees with it.

In short, you may speak or write admiringly about the emperor’s new clothes but you cannot point out that perhaps the emperor is naked. In fact, you are tacitly urged by the emperor to write encomiums on the brilliance of his attire.

Ruling politicians have the power to financially ruin any newspaper by withholding ads.

You may wonder, what does “tacitly urged” mean here? It means that when money speaks, you don’t need to. The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has a very, very large budget. (Why India has to have what amounts to a ministry of government propaganda is a matter for another day.) Currently it’s about Rs 4000 crores or about US$ 600 million a year. That’s the central budget; I presume the states have their own I&B budgets. Part of that humongous amount is spent on government advertisements in newspapers. Ruling politicians have the power to financially ruin any newspaper by withholding ads.

Even cognitively challenged people — and people who run newspapers are not stupid — know which side the bread is buttered, if you get my drift. But even if you lay that carrot aside (pardon the mixed metaphor), you have to mind that heavy stick. There are literally thousands of pages of rules and regulations that apply to all kinds of organizations, including publishing. No one really knows everything about what they are but it is quite easy to run afoul of some regulation or the other, if an inquiry was to be initiated against any business.

“There’s freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.” –Idi Amin

Publishing anything that the government is likely to take serious offense to is akin to publishing an invitation to officialdom to please come and shut down the business on some pretext or the other; and also to audit the accounts; and to get an income tax raid done on your home immediately; and file a few cases against your business which the courts will take decades to settle.

The freedom of speech and of the press forms part of the foundation of a free society. The other rights such as the right to choose who shall be entrusted with governance — democracy and all that — are rendered meaningless if one is ignorant about the deeds and misdeeds of those who govern. The search for good governance is bound to be fruitless if one has to do it blindfolded, which is what it amounts to when people lack the freedom to examine the government critically, fearlessly and frankly.

Perhaps Indians need to fight and win some real freedom, and not just be satisfied with dubious nominal freedoms that are granted only provisionally and exercised rarely for fear of government reprisals.

Author: Atanu Dey


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