Media activists in India say the Indian state is increasingly becoming 'intolerant' as the government finds ways to regulate media, in particular the social networking websites.
Last year, a Delhi court instructed social networking sites to remove derogatory content for allegedly webcasting objectionable material. India's telecom minister Kapil Sibal faced a deluge of protests in the online world after he threatened that the government would be forced to take remedial steps if social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google failed to screen offensive material from their sites.
After a series of protests, the Indian government had to clarify its position by saying it was not planning to introduce a "Chinese-style" web censorship in the country.
Regulation of online content has been a hot topic in India for a while. In contrast to China, internet users in India enjoy largely unhindered access to the internet.
But in May last year, the Department of Information Technology brought in new rules placing the onus on social networking sites, such as Facebook, to "act within 36 hours" of receiving information about offensive content.
“The Indian state is becoming increasingly intolerant of criticism," Sevanti Ninan, editor of the media watchdog The Hoot, told DW. "Last year, Google reported that it received requests from the Indian government to take down material related to criticism of certain politicians,” he added.
The Indian Supreme Court is currently debating whether it should formulate guidelines to regulate media coverage of court proceedings related to criminal matters.
“It should be remembered that the Indian constitution allows free speech, and censorship is unconstitutional,” Rajiv Dhawan of the Editors Guild of India told DW.
Former chief justice of India JS Verma was of the opinion that “self-regulation” was the best way forward for the media.
"By exercising self-restraint, the media can protect its prestige,” said Verma, who is presently chairman of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, a self-regulatory mechanism of the Indian News Broadcasters Association.
On the other hand, Meenakshi Natarajan, member of the ruling Congress party in parliament, insisted there should definitely be a law to regulate the media.
A private member of the Indian parliament is proposing a bill in parliament calling for the establishment of a media regulatory body with powers to impose a ban or suspend coverage of an incident that “may pose a threat to national security.”
“This is censorship. In this day and age, how can you have such a law? It is unconstitutional,” said KTS Tulsivice, chairperson of the Law Commission of India.
"Organized" attempts to curb free speech
Media censorship is not new in India. In the past, writers, academics and artists have also come under attack from politicians and religious groups, and various films, theater plays, books and paintings have also been banned.
But media activists and journalists now fear a bigger and more organized attempt from the government to rein in the freedom of speech in India.
“The Indian media has been critical of the government's corruption scandals. This has offended the government. Now they want to show their power,” economist Manish Gulati told DW.
The future of internet growth in India, projected to have the third-largest online population in the world by 2013, could well hinge on this ongoing court battle. Larger questions of freedom of speech and expression will also be brought to the fore in this renewed debate that has broken out on "muzzling" the net.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Shamil Shams