Assault on freedom of expression

The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has floated a tender inviting private parties to devise a software platform which will be able to collect and store information from all types of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc.) as well as e-mail. In other words, the Centre wants to arm itself with an instrument that will be able to track and store conversations across the digital media platforms as well as disseminate their content. A PIL petition challenging the floating of the tender has been filed in the Supreme Court of India by a West Bengal legislator under Article 32 of the Constitution, seeking the quashing of the Request for Proposals (RFP) which requires the bidders to be responsible for installation, testing and communication of the software and for the supply, service, operation and maintenance of the system. On the face of it, the move is violative of the Fundamental Rights granted to citizens and guaranteed under Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.
If such a devise is put in place, it will have the effect of instilling fear in the citizenry of the consequences of expressing opinions and views which may be construed, directly or indirectly, as being critical of the ruling party and the government, amounting to anti-national activity and making a citizen liable for penal action. Even now, when there is no such platform, sections of the media have voluntarily introduced a system of self-censorship. Then there have been reports of the media being intimidated and warned against criticizing official policies and programme.
Independent India has been held up as a shining example of a flourishing democracy among the newly liberated colonies of Asia and Africa in the post-Second World War era. While most of our neighbours including Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, have witnessed the Army taking over power and directly running a military dictatorship or, as in Pakistan, being the real power calling the shots behind the façade of a democratically elected civil government, India has, except for a brief 21 month period when India Gandhi imposed Internal Emergency, all along been developing along the democratic path. The democratic polity is now in danger of being subverted and supplanted by a system in which formal democracy will continue but the democratic content of the polity will be severely damaged. This is a new danger. The politically conscious citizenry and especially the media must do all in their power to prevent democracy from being degenerated into a disguised dictatorship.

Monday, 16 July, 2018