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Suppressing the Tide

Whether it be Article 19(1) of the Indian constitution or the 1st Amendment of the constitution of the United States or any other democratic country, the right to freedom of expression and speech is widely valued and protected. A universal human right under the Charter of the United Nations, free expression is important for a society to develop and bring about important changes. However, this fundamental right faces a considerable challenge due to the much practised ‘censorship’.

What is censorship?

As per the Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, “Censorship is the supervision and control of the information and ideas that are circulated among the people within a society. In recent times, censorship refers to the examination of books, periodicals, plays, films, television and radio programs, news reports, and other communication media with the aim of altering or suppressing parts thought to be objectionable or offensive.” It may be imposed by the Government, private pressure groups, religious institutions, or by the artists, writers or speakers. The latter refers to self-censorship, control of what you say or do in order to avoid offending others, but without being told officially that such control is necessary.

Why censorship?

The proponents of censorship claim that it reduces the amount of conflict and hate speech in society. It acts as a filter against false content, hence reducing the spread of rumours and improving a person’s awareness. There are censorship laws in place that prevent businesses from manipulating you about their products or services. Since copyright laws are also a part of censorship, it protects the interests of artists, writers, inventors and innovators. Censorship is also used as a tool to protect national security by protecting sensitive information and preventing internal conflicts. In times of political misunderstandings, there is usually a chance of hostility, misunderstandings, and animosity.

These issues are often fueled by rumours and other inflammatory contents that trickle within unofficial channels. For instance, the baseless conspiracy involving QAnon in the US says that “President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.” The theory has been linked to several violent acts since 2018. All these could have been regulated by censorship. Although the major aim of censorship is to protect children from unhealthy content, many experts argue that all individuals, and not just children, are vulnerable and need protection from offensive material—whether pornography or radical criticism of existing political and religious authority. Individuals cannot be trusted to decide what they wish to see and read or to freely form their own opinions. However, when the state arbitrarily establishes itself as the official guardian of the truth, we must ask the question raised by Plato: Who guards the guardians?

Is Censorship justified?

Censorship allows false narratives to become the truth as is the case in North Korea where people believe anything that is fed by the government. Also, it assumes that people get influenced by media like violent TV shows and movies. Many studies suggest that violent experiences in real life affect children more than those shown on television. There is, in fact, virtually no evidence that fictional violence causes otherwise stable people to become violent. Additionally, censorship reduces personal accountability for one’s actions and tilts the scales in favour of specific people. Once a person allows someone else to take charge of decisions, the control over life’s other decisions fades as well. This disadvantage is visible in China where, apart from an obvious breach, the rules regarding what can and can't be said, broadcast, forwarded, analysed are thought to be kept deliberately vague.

In this way, everyone is on their toes and the authorities can shut down whatever they want, at any time, without having to give a reason. An obvious breach includes the portrayal of illegal activities like child pornography, the spread of misinformation or hate speech. But in China, it also includes expressing anything against the government. This gives extreme power to the government by creating repression and encouraging compliance. Also, censorship is a costly affair. A study showed that Internet shutdowns to prevent specific content items from being viewed by the general public cost countries $2.4 billion in 2015. China on its own pays billions each year just to keep its firewall in place to limit information access online. To those in the West, censorship is often thought of as something that happens ‘elsewhere’ - China or other despotic authoritarian regimes.

But increasingly overbearing government regulations have started emerging in the so-called democratic countries as well, in the name of curbing ‘fake news’. The French censorship law to curb misinformation and manipulation of news gives the French state a troubling degree of latitude in seeking a court intervention to censor news on the pretext that it is false. ‘Fake news’ is a wide term that includes reports that are knowingly and mischievously false, reports in the mainstream media that are plainly wrong, manipulated news reports, state propaganda inserted into the news cycle by foreign states, stories that are “spun” by PR firms and advertisers using pseudo-news and events to attract publicity and advertising revenues, and parody content which use outlandish satire to mock the news cycle. However, the solution to fake news lies not in endangering free speech and press freedom, but for governments to consistently invest in increasing public awareness, public literacy, a robust fact-checking environment and critical thinking among the population, as has been successfully done in Finland and closer to home in Kannur in Kerala, which has created the necessary infrastructure to ensure these outcomes through the educational curriculum. In addition, it is important that social media platforms — through which fake news spreads so rapidly — take initiative to identify and combat it on a war footing. The recent moves by WhatsApp and Facebook in this regard have been inadequate so far.

When censorship backfires

Censorship usually backfires as it is seen as a violation of the freedom of expression. It occurs in the form of increased demand for restricted work. Censors control this backfire effect in various ways, including covering up the censorship, devaluing the target, reinterpreting the action, using official channels, and using intimidation and bribery. The censors offer the paternalistic claim, "We are protecting you" or "We are acting in your best interests." These tactics at times become morally wrong if the artist lacks support. A Pune IT Professional was killed by an angry right-wing mob over morphed images of Shiv Sena Chief, Balasaheb Thackeray, Shivaji and Hindu gods. Mohsin Shaikh was said to have been targeted for being a Muslim though there was no connection established between him and the controversial images. It was argued that there should be reasonable free expression and people should not cross their boundaries. So, what is ‘reasonable’ free expression, anyway, and when did we get so narrow-minded and intolerant?

What is so important about free speech?

A free flow of ideas provides scope for ideas to be floated amongst the masses, stimulate the minds of the people and provides a stable environment for intellectual discussion and debate. It allows for the criticism of public policy from various perspectives and provides a valuable amount of feedback to the lawmakers. Poet John Milton also promulgated that “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Milton further added that new ideas must be welcomed, scrutinized from all angles, tested against competing ideas, and in all likelihood, the winner brings us closer to the truth than we had been before. Censorship represses one group of people in favour of what the majority wants. While a few ideas may be offensive to some, they need to be heard by the other section who would want to further discuss the issue, form opinions and develop new concepts.

For example, the discussion on sex education and menstruation is still considered taboo in India by many. But the conversation is important to explain several things like the importance of safe sex or hygienic and good quality sanitary napkins instead of cloths. The government censoring such topics just because they are displeasing to some would restrict us to move forward as a society. Furthermore, giving censorship rights also goes to the extreme at times. Instances of unusual and unaccepted censorship like that of ‘Harry Potter’ by JK Rowling for spreading black magic are completely absurd. These problems, being solved through the double-edged sword of censorship, need to be tackled with a systematic approach. Families, on their personal level, can set their own limits, establish rules, and create conditions that fit their needs without imposing their morality or beliefs on others. Instead of banning work, constructive rating should be provided with age limits, giving the choice to people to access them or not. And above all, people need to be educated to critically analyse what they receive to distinguish fact from fiction and right from wrong.

Rakshita Janjire
Undergraduate Student at Shri Ram College of Commerce









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