DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA
The UPA government and minister Kapil Sibal must be congratulated for showing remarkable restraint in not proceeding against Internet companies which hosted pages with defamatory and inflammatory content about religious figures and leaders like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. For, they had the wherewithal and, most importantly, the power to arm-twist them into submission, whatever may have been the public reaction.Sibal said the need for talking to the Internet companies was because he intended to sensitize them about public sentiments and cultural ethos, which were “very important to us”. He also clarified that he never advocated pre-censorship of material on the web.
But one wonders what prompted this knee-jerk reaction in the garb of mandatorily eliciting respect for public sentiments and cultural ethos? Those acquainted with web portals and blogs know that netizens’ seldom arrest their urge to instantaneously post their inner-most thoughts without thinking whether it is good, bad or ugly.The government and the minister surely can block popular web portals or social networking sites and force Internet companies to remove unwarranted reference to revered leaders.
But can circulation of such content be stopped in its entirety? Will it prevent a blogger from speaking his mind among his friends, who in turn will carry it far and wide.
“Every free man has undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of press (read expression),” the Supreme Court had said more than 60 years ago in Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi [1950 SCR 605], quoting famous English jurist William Blackstone.
In its zeal to project seamlessness of the fundamental right to free speech and expression, the SC probably forgot to mention the other part of the quote attributed to Blackstone, who had said “but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequences of his temerity”.
Consequences of disregarding the responsibility cast on a person exercising his right to free speech applies to bloggers too. A couple of years back, the Supreme Court had refused to stay the trial of a blogger in a defamation case saying he must face the consequences of what he wrote.
Legal consequences apart, the worrying part is the intention behind the move. Is it an attempt to screen what is being posted on web pages, not mechanically but manually? Political leaders seldom bother about what is being written about them in the virtual world. For, the public knows most intricate details of the character, integrity, temperament and reputation of every political figure; howsoever hard they may attempt to hide those embarrassing traits of their personality, most of which may not have been written about in the newspapers or displayed on television screens.
So, should a blogger be prevented from writing about those unknown facets of a leader? Indian political class may learn something from the approach of British judiciary towards uncharitable comments against them.
On initiation of contempt proceedings for undignified things written about judges, Lord Denning had said in R vs Commissioner of Police [(1968) 2 QB 150], “Let me say at once that we will never use this jurisdiction as a means to uphold our own dignity. That must rest on surer foundations. Nor will we use it to suppress those who speak against us. We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it. For, there is something far more important at stake. It is no less than freedom of speech itself.”
The respect for right to free speech is universal. Yes, the writer must be prepared to face the consequences if the contents exceeded the civility parameters. But some crossing this boundary of civility cannot be the basis for an attempt to impede free discussion and debate about personalities and their traits on the web. The entire exercise against Facebook and others somehow leaves one with a feeling that the government wants to keep something under wraps, which it believed would explode soon on the web.