1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Free speech 'under increasing threat' in South Asia

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 23, 2018

Progress on human rights in South Asia has been challenged in recent years by the narrowing space for free speech and civil society. The disturbing trend is a cause for concern, says Germany's human rights commissioner.

Symbolbild zur Pressefreiheit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: How do you see the current state of human rights in India?

Bärbel Kofler: India has been striving to improve the human rights situation in the country. No nation is perfect; Germany had its own review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and we are looking into our faults.  

We have to carefully examine the situation of minority rights and, in particular, women's rights. There's a lot of work to do when it comes to ensuring equality and security for women.

Read more: Is India an unsafe place for journalists?

Furthermore, the poor need to be made aware of their rights and given the possibility to avail of their rights. That's a big issue and struggle in India. But I also see positive developments, thanks to the tremendous work done by the Supreme Court. Still, there are some major challenges when it comes to ensuring the rights of every Indian citizen.  

Sedition and defamation laws are being used by Indian authorities against activists and this has led to arbitrary arrests and detention. What are your concerns?

Worry is really too weak a word to describe this, but I would say I am worried about countries where people are pushed away, arrested or even worse. These so-called "shrinking spaces" are a tendency all over the world right now. Opinions have a right to be heard, to be expressed and the right to be protected. It is a sign of weakness if the majority is not mature enough to accept other opinions.

Deutschland Bärbel Kofler
Kofler: 'The shrinking space for free speech, the freedom of press and assembly, and civil society is a development I view with great concern'Image: picture alliance/dpa/B. v. Jutrczenka

India's Supreme Court has decriminalized same sex relations among the LGBTQ community. There are still exclusions like marriage, civil union and the right to property. What do you think are the next steps?

That is a decision for India's parliament and government. In Germany after gay sex was decriminalized in the 1970s, it took us a long time to accept the idea of gay marriage, which was legalized last year. It is the duty of the legislature to come up with laws that equalize rights.

You focus on strengthening women's rights. However, sexual violence in India is spiraling out of control with crimes getting uglier and more frightening. What are your thoughts?

I am deeply disturbed by this violence, which I know cannot be changed just like that by law. It needs to be focused on social debate and education and this needs to be broadened at different points at school and community levels.

This has to do with the acceptance and perceptions of women's role in society. Violent cases need to be brought to court. The root of the problem has to do with mindset, which has to be changed, and that is difficult.

There are many interesting things going on with the #MeToo campaign in India, for example, and I see a lot of powerful women who are doing a great job.

Read more: Mashaal Radio shutdown: Is Pakistan suppressing foreign media?

In some South Asian countries like Bangladesh, free speech is under increasing threat, as evidenced by the killings and threats faced by bloggers and activists there. What's your take on this trend?

It's a big cause for concern. Free speech is increasingly under threat not only in South Asia, but also across the world. As a result of these threats to them and their families, many people are afraid of speaking out. Civil society is unable to work freely in many parts of the world.    

The shrinking space for free speech, the freedom of press and assembly, and civil society is a development I view with great concern.  

India’s #MeToo moment?

The killings of bloggers in Bangladesh worry me. But the problem is not limited to that country; journalists and activists face threats to their lives all over the world. I don't want to point fingers at any one particular nation and ignore the rest, but I do acknowledge that it's a severe problem in many Asian countries. Every society needs diverse views and public debate, and we have the right to fight for that.    

Vigilante justice is another problem many societies are confronting with. Some say this problem increases in places where marginal, minority and vulnerable communities come under attack by vested interests. How do you view this issue?  

In my opinion, vigilante justice is always a misuse of people's emotions and feelings by vested interests. In a democracy, it's the duty of the state to protect everybody, regardless of their political or religious affiliation. But we see that minorities are increasingly discriminated against in a number of countries and, sometimes, even face violence.  This is a very disturbing trend.

Dr. Bärbel Kofler is the German Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid. She's currently on an official visit to India.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11