26 January 2013 at Jaipur Literature Festival: Freedom of Speech and Expression

Panel:  Shoma Chaudhury, John Burnside, Orlando Figes and Basharat Peer, Chair: John Kampfner

The new venue at the Jaipur Literary Festival, the Char Bagh, was packed this morning for the first of two EWWC events at the Festival.  A lively discussion was chaired by John Kampfner who opened the session by expressing concern over the state control of the internet although he conceded that there was no ideal jurisdiction, no paradigm for free expression.

Shoma Chaudhury explored the right to free expression in India, saying that as a society we are too quick to take offence.  True freedom of speech and freedom of expression will only come when we accept, and assert, the right to be able to hurt people’s sentiment and to cause offence.  We should be able to question each other’s beliefs without disrespecting the believer.

Orlando Figes looked at the example of Russia, an authoritarian state, saying that the founding principle of freedom of speech was the marketplace of ideas.  People must be able to think independently before free speech, or free exchange of ideas was possible.  He believes that after years of state domination, the Russian people do not have that independence of thought and it concerns him that they knew this and appeared to be quite happy about it.

Basharat Peer spoke on sedition and the state from his own experiences as a journalist working in Kashmir.  He remembered the crackle of static that marked the tapping of his cellphone, and the questions of the policeman responsible for the monitoring of journalists in the area.   He spoke of the growing threats to the media from the state – hundreds of small newspapers published out of state capitals and the smaller cities of India are being threatened with economic failure in the state’s attempt to control them.  He believed that this is a legacy of colonialism – the need to control the population.

John Burnside introduced the more insidious threat to freedom of speech from the private sector.  After the state, commercial interests control what we know, how we share information and what information we share.  He spoke of his environmental work, and his own experience of ‘green-washing’ – companies working in the energy sector who put a great deal of money and effort into ensuring their products are perceived to be environmentally friendly, resorting to various tactics to prevent further investigation including surveillance and specious legal threats which activists cannot afford to fight.

He said “While we get exorcised by state control and oppression, the threat from the private sector is more subtle but just as dangerous to freedom of expression.”

The debate opened to the panel and moved to a discussion on the issues of freedom of speech online.  Shoma called for a more precise definition of the exact conditions under which freedom of speech can be curtailed.  She said that the current law in India covering online content is so restrictive that we might as well all be silent.  Almost every journalist or non-fiction writer could be charged under the current law on any given day.

Shoma closed by saying “I stand by the right for people to offend and provoke me (but not incite violence) and Orlando Figes agreed with her saying “We have to be much more robust and allow people to be offended.”

John Kampfner opened the debate to the engaged and enthusiastic audience, and was overwhelmed by the number of questions.  Renowned Indian producer and theatre director, Javed Ahkter challenged Shoma, asking her to define who decides whether someone is inciting violence or hatred.  Is it right to include caveats in the right to freedom of speech? Shoma responded by differentiating between the ability to exercise choice.  In art, theatre, cinema and books it is possible to exercise choice – if you don’t like it don’t engage with it, and here she said she was a “freedom absolutist” however, when it was not possible to exercise chose, we need clear definition – and she said it was absolutely possible for incitement to hatred or violence to be clearly defined.

Other questions from the audience covered anonymity on the internet, self censorship and the oppression of the freedom of speech of minority groups – be it women, Muslims or Dalit.  A Nepalese visitor to the festival stated that those who have the national or international limelight have a duty to push for freedom of expression, and it is they who are most silent.

The lively discussion closed with the chair, John Kampfner, calling for an audience vote asking whether they believed that there is too much freedom of expression in India, not enough freedom of expression or just about the right amount.  While dozens of hands were raised for the two other options, the overwhelming majority supported the statement that there is no enough freedom of expression in India.