Of securing privacy and spreading freedom of speech

Threats to free speech and media freedom range from IT Rules amendments to a misuse of the Income Tax Act, panellists said

Updated - February 26, 2023 02:20 am IST

Published - February 25, 2023 11:09 pm IST - CHENNAI

Apar Gupta, Dhanya Rajendran, T. M. Krishna and Suhrith Parthasarathy in conversation with N. Ravi at The Hindu Lit For Life, Music Academy in Chennai on Saturday

Apar Gupta, Dhanya Rajendran, T. M. Krishna and Suhrith Parthasarathy in conversation with N. Ravi at The Hindu Lit For Life, Music Academy in Chennai on Saturday | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

The need to secure privacy by creating a safe space to think and create, and for people to be the way they are should be at the core of any discussion on freedom of speech, T.M. Krishna, Carnatic vocalist, composer and author, said on Saturday.

Taking part in a panel discussion on “Free speech in the age of internet” as part of The Hindu Lit for Life, Mr. Krishna said that restrictions on freedom of speech and expression were an attempt to maintain the status quo, adding that people from marginalised sections of the society were the worst affected by such limitations, which went against principles of equality.

Discussing the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the Internet Freedom Foundation’s executive director Apar Gupta said that it was brought in with the intention of providing a safeguard to digital intermediaries, but has instead made a marked departure to become a larger regulatory framework, which was “patently unconstitutional”.

He said that discussions on fake news, especially with respect to electoral democracy, should involve the funding of political parties, electoral bonds and campaign finance. Mr. Gupta cautioned against advocating laws to tackle fake news, as one needed to remember that lies were often said by people without any intention to deceive.

Fake news definitions

The News Minute’s editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran stressed the need to distinguish between misinformation and disinformation while discussing fake news. She said that even the government used loose definitions of fake news to bring more limitations as and when it wanted them.

Expressing concern over the pressures exerted on freedom of speech, especially on media organisations, she highlighted how her organisation was recently served an Income Tax notice just because a person from another organisation that was raided by the IT department had reached out to a The News Minute journalist for an article.

Outdated laws

While threats to freedom of expression existed long before the internet age, the internet has certainly exasperated the the problem, Madras High Court advocate Suhrith Parthasarathy said, pointing out that many of the laws used against free speech had been inherited from India’s colonial past.

He stressed the need for altogether repealing or amending such laws. He also elaborated on how the Income Tax Act was being used, especially against media organisations, to conduct searches which violated their privacy. One rarely saw courts striking down laws that were intrinsically violative of privacy and free speech, he added.

Kasturi and Sons chairman N. Ravi, who moderated the discussion, said that there were four broad areas from which threats to free speech came: unreasonable laws, misuse of such laws, an intolerant mob, and a majoritarian ideology. When all four were combined, that became a toxic mix, he said.

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