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Global Education Neighborhood Essay

Internet Censorship: Reasonable or Not?

A woman looks at a computer screen full of blog Web sites reporting on, and interpreting, the latest news. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys / AFP-Getty Images)

Arush Chopra, a former correspondent with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) in Mumbai, India, is currently enrolled in a broadcast journalism course at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) at Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Of the article below, he writes: "I found that while we learned about the importance of the freedom of the press in the classroom, the school itself was trying to rob us of it. This came at a time when the Indian Government had recently banned blogs, which angered me even more, and compelled me to write this piece."

Reasonableness? What's that about?

"This site is blocked by Sonicwall content filter service. Reason for restriction: Administrative custom list settings," read the blue computer screen when I tried logging into Google's free social networking service, minutes before I began writing this piece in a computer lab at the ACJ.

This restriction comes as a sequel to a similar one on Web-blog access using computers on campus. I do not know the reason for any of these bans but I hope that their imposition by the college authorities means well and is 'reasonable.' I would have known better, had a notice been served.

Thus, while the freedom of expression debate surrounding the recent government ban on blogs across the ideological spectrum has cooled down in the media, it is far from over at the ACJ. Why not tell us the reason for gagging our freedom when the possible 'reasonable restrictions' on it have been spelled out in no uncertain terms in Article 19(2) of the Indian constitution? Though the question — how the ACJ defined 'reasonableness' — remains unanswered for the want of discussion and debate, the world outside the college may provide some clues on how reasonableness is determined for various restrictions on the freedom of expression.

The Indian government directed the department of telecommunications (DOT) to ban 'anti-national' blogs after the recent Mumbai train blasts, using Article 19(2) and citing the 'security of the state' restriction.

However, the ban that blocked Web blogs across the ideological spectrum had the blogging community crying foul over the suspension of their freedom to express themselves freely. The media reported that a lack of 'technological know-how' caused the blanket ban intended against only a few 'anti-national' Websites.

A clever story by CNN/IBN's Narendra Nag makes that reasoning hard to digest. "It seems there is a definite slant to the Websites that have been banned — a stance that is not anti-national, but anti-congress," noted Nag, citing examples of blogs and Websites like that calls itself the mouthpiece of the Bajrang Dal, and that carried a "post on Congress trying to block a film being made about Sonia Gandhi."

If these restrictions were reasonable and fell within the ambit of Article 19(2), then why were the circumstances around the ban so murky? Why a blanket ban? And, as Nag points out in his story, "Is it national security that's at stake or reasons that are just political?"

Security of the state being a sensitive issue, these questions usually remain unanswered but in the case of creative forms of expression, especially films, the court did attempt a logical framework to ascertain 'reasonableness.'

The Cinematograph Act 1952, that seeks to impose reasonable restrictions enshrined in article 19(2), was first challenged in 1958 by filmmaker KA Abbas to defend his stand that his documentary, "Tale of Four Cities" be given a 'U' certificate instead of the 'A' rendered by the censor board.

While Abbas argued that pre-censorship by the censor board was violative of his fundamental right to freedom of expression, the court dismissed the claim saying that the difference between censorship and pre-censorship was only a matter of timing and the two were same in spirit. It also stated that the motion picture medium is to be treated differently when compared with other media. "A person reading a book or other writing or hearing a speech or viewing a painting or sculpture is not so deeply stirred as by seeing a motion picture," the court said, implying that the restriction on the filmmaker was a reasonable one.

Close to half a century later, when endless visual content and maverick views can be accessed at the push of a button, religious fundamentalists were using the same argument, to ban author Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" — the film, but not the book — touting it at as a 'reasonable restriction.' Fortunately, the courts displayed faith in the Indian audiences and decided otherwise.

Take the issue of banning smoking scenes in films by the Ministry of health and family welfare that gags filmmakers' right to let their characters light up on screen: Petitions filed against the restriction by filmmakers like Mahesh Bhatt, who deemed the order a violation of their freedom of expression, raised a pertinent legal question. Did a ban on screen smoking fall within the purview of guidelines enshrined in Article 19(2)? The affidavit filed by the Ministry itself said: "… the rules are required to be imposed … to protect the right to health of public…" which is not a permissible ground under Article 19(2). Even if it did by some stretch of imagination fall within the purview of Article 19(2) by making moral judgments about smoking, was it reasonable? Why not ban on-screen drinking, violence and other social evils — the very basic themes of Indian cinema, altogether?

The purpose of restriction — the evil sought to be remedied by the law — proportionate to the evil and the prevailing conditions at the time are a few considerations before the courts in cases like these. The decision to determine the 'reasonableness' lies with the courts but political outfits, fundamental groups, and governments have made it their prerogative to muzzle free speech and expression time and again for vested interests.

Banning all blogs was not justifiably proportionate to the evil (a few alleged 'anti-national' blogs). Banning the "Da Vinci Code" — the film or the book — would have meant turning a blind eye to the existing era of free information, and banning on-screen smoking would do little more than dissuade a stray adolescent from taking his first drag and a filmmaker to flesh out a well thought out character. It wouldn't affect most of us who can buy cigarettes and pirated movie prints at every nook and cranny and post them fearlessly on our blogs, using proxy servers.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind," said British philosopher John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty." Mill's remark, in the present context, means that political protests and pressure tactics cannot be a pretext to overlook reasonableness while trying to evaluate a dissident viewpoint.

And in the context of the ACJ's recent action, the message is on the wall:

"Before you silence us, hear us out!"

Readers of this piece might also be interested in taking a look at our Viewpoints article on Blogs and Freedom of Speech.