Saturday, April 11, 2009

Free Speech News

1. Regulation of the Media: Interesting, and dare I say, worrying developments on the broadcasting media regulation front, but first the background: Some time ago, the government proposed a regulatory mechanism in the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, which was strongly opposed by all media bodies. This blog debated the issue here, here, here and here. As a response to the proposals, it was decided that a self-regulatory body called the News Broadcasters' Association will be set up to address the genuine grievances against the media, without having the fear of an overbearing state. The body was chaired by former Supreme Court judge and former Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission Justice JS Verma. The NBA, in its first major order, fined India TV for “deceptively dubbing” an interview in Hindi, a language the interviewee does not know or speak. But before one could even celebrate the success of the self-regulatory mechanism, India TV has alleged bias and pulled out of the Association. I don't know the facts of the case in any detail, but if the NBA is to fail, the government will get a (possibly legitimate) excuse to intervene.

2. Combating Defamation of Religion: The UN Human Rights Committee has recently passed a resolution titled Combating Defamation of Religion, calling for steps to combat defamation of religion as a human rights issue. This is a worrying development on free speech, on which one may have a nuanced position on hate speech against groups, but it was clear that criticising any beliefs (including religious beliefs) was protected (except for non-content based law and order reasons).

India, which normally votes along with the Council's majority of developing nations, abstained in protest. India's Ambassador Gopinathan Achamkulangare said the resolution "inappropriately" linked religious criticism to racism. While one understands India's stand, why did it choose to abstain when it could have voted against the resolution? The reason is apparent when one looks at the voting figures:

The Resolution was adopted by a vote of 23 to 11, with 13 abstentions. The voting was as follows:
In favour: Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa;
Against: Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland;
Abstaining: Argentina, Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Ghana, India, Japan, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Uruguay, Zambia.

Almost all the countries which voted against are first world countries, while those who abstained appear to be mostly developing countries who were uncomfortable with the Resolution but did not want to vote against their third-world allies. The resolution would have been defeated if most of the abstaining countries had voted against it. While one can see the arguments for realpolitik in international affairs, if my analysis is correct, it is rather sad that voting block loyalties decide the outcomes of human rights issues.

It is rare for Foreign Ministers in India to be accountable for how the country votes in international fora (except in high profile spaces like the WTO). India's record in joining international human rights enforcement mechanisms (various Protocols, the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court etc.) is abysmal. Indian media largely fails to even report on international law issues, let alone ask uncomfortable questions about our decisions in these fora.
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