A free-wheeling conversation among eminent lawyers, activists, and journalists, Free Speech in the Age of the Internet, was moderated by N. Ravi, Chairman of Kasturi & Sons Ltd at the Hindu Lit for Life 2023 today.
Flagging off the discussion was Suhrith Parthasarathy, practising advocate at the Madras High Court in Chennai, who spoke about the laws that we’ve inherited with a heavy tinge of colonialism. Shining a light on how this pans out today, he says, ”What we seldom have our courts do is to strike down laws that violate our right to privacy. So, if there’s some suspicion that someone’s doing something wrong, they can file a warrant to secure assets which now include mobile phones, laptops, and access to their social media, not just a raid of their houses. This has a chilling effect when it happens to journalists and activists.”
Renowned journalist, Dhanya Rajendran, who’s the editor-in-chief of The News Minute, pitches in to share a horrifying account of how their office was raided because a colleague had been pitched a potential story on WhatsApp by someone whose office had been raided by the IT department.
Talking about how laws come in the way of journalists doing their job, she adds, “ The government sneaks in some rules every once in a while, and we don’t know what they’ll do next.”
She points to Apar Gupta, sitting across her, signalling that organisations like the ones he works for help journalists and the common people decode changes in laws and regulations.
Gupta, a lawyer and a writer, works at the intersection of technology and democratic rights in India. He’s also the Executive Director of Internet Freedom Foundation, a New-Delhi based NGO that conducts advocacy on digital rights and liberties.
“For me, the curb on free speech is not only a legal form of censorship, but it also restricts the value of what free speech serves,” he says.
Asked by N, Ravi to elaborate on “fake news”, Gupta believes that it’s usually the campaign financing of political parties that’s at the root of it. On possible ways forward he astutely says, “Sometimes we look to laws around technology for solutions, however, the problems that actually need to be fixed are at the core of human society.”
Making a poignant point about those on the margins of society is T.M. Krishna, public activist, who reiterates, “Putting rules on the internet and on free speech is a force of oppression. It also threatens linguistic and cultural diversity.”
A celebrated Carnatic vocalist himself, he adds, “Privacy is at the core of being who we are. Only from this space of safe privacy, comes the possibility to create.”
He believes that every bit of art that people create is in one way or another a statement against the status quo. When people and governments in power work to stifle this, they’re basically saying “no form of inconvenient questioning should exist,” states Krishna.
The Hindu Lit for Life 2023 is powered by Life Insurance Corporation of India in association with Ajay Toothbrushes. The Associate Partners are NITTE Education Trust, Hindustan Group of Institutions, State Bank of India, Sai University and Vivek’s. Jewellery Partner: Joyalukkas. The Mobility Partner is Hyundai, Banking Partner is Indian Bank Realty, the Author Lounge Partner is VFS Global, the Realty Partner is Casagrand, the Knowledge Partner is SSVM Institutions, the Bookstore Partner is Higginbothams, the Gift Partner is Anand Prakash, and the Water Partner is Repute.