Is “freedom of expression” a muddled notion? Is there a need to define more clearly where freedom of expression ends and deliberate incitement begins? Does freedom of expression allow something that has the potential to incite violence and discrimination?
During a session titled “Freedom of speech and expression” at the Jaipur Literature Festival, journalist and managing editor of Tehelka Shoma Chaudhury said Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which imposes reasonable restrictions on fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, needed to be debated.
The discussion featured Ms. Chaudhury, writers John Burnside, Orlando Figes and Bashrat Peer in conversation with journalist Timoth Garton Ash.
While she was a “freedom absolutist” on matters of cultural production like art and cinema, Ms. Chaudhury said freedom of expression could not be taken as an absolute concept when it came to public discourse, which included public speeches.
To the latter part, poet and film lyricist Javed Akhtar, who was part of the audience, asked how one could define the limits of freedom and expression, and if one were to justify restrictions on speeches that incited violence did it not bring the discourse back to square one?
Ms. Chaudhury replied that censorship should apply to modes of expression that were factually incorrect and incited violence and these could be easily identified.
She cited the example of the recent exodus of Assamese and other north-eastern students from several cities in India, which was the result of incorrect information circulated across the Internet and other means of communication.
There was a need for society to “assert its right to offend others,” something that should not be silenced in the name of public sentiment and political correctness as these were just smokescreens, Ms. Chaudhury noted.
British historian noted for study of Russia Orlando Figes said freedom of speech could only be effective when it translated into street protests and mass movements and had no meaning when preached by armchair intellectuals.
Citing a 2010 poll, Mr. Figes said most Russians were not only aware that their television programmes were controlled and manipulated by authorities; they were very comfortable with it since they believed it helped maintain social order.
Kashmiri journalist and author Basharat Peer talked about censorship of the press by the government.
“The story of surveillance and censorship go together,” said Mr. Peer, citing an example of an undercover policeman in Kashmir reporting back to the government on the activities of the Press.
“Especially in the case of small newspapers published from the States, like in Kashmir and Bihar restrictions are implemented by stopping government ads,” he said about press censorship working through economic restrictions.
Moderator Timothy Garton Ash said journalists working for smaller publications — including bloggers, freelancers and independent journalists working in remote centres — faced the greatest risk of being silenced.
The photo caption has been corrected for a spelling error.