Report on the curtain raiser at Sarai, 21 February, 2006
The curtain raiser at Sarai to the South Asia seminar on censorship – Free Speech & Fearless Listening: The encounter with censorship in South Asia -organised by the Delhi Film Archive and the Films For Freedom, Delhi, in collaboration with Sarai and the Max Mueller Bhavan began with a briefintroduction to the event by Shuddhabhrata Sen Gupta, who chaired the session. The panelists were Sudheer Pattnaik, Jitman Basnet, Hasan Zaidi,Vinod Jose, Malathi Maithri and Andres Viel.
Welcoming the participants to the curtain raiser Shuddha suggested that the seminar be seen as a celebration of freedom of expression, not just a lament against censorship. Outlining the contours of the discussions planned for the next few days of the seminar he spoke of issues related to creativity, reportage and law and the censorship exercised by the state as well as non state actors.
Shuddha also emphasized the need for a complex analyses and understanding of the issues related to censorship given the diversity of positions around free speech. He ended his introductory remarks by listing out some of the 54 books that have been banned in India through the past hundred years. These include Mother India by Catherine Mayo that was banned by the colonial government, Behind the iron curtain in Kashmir, a pamphalet, The Ramayana by Aubrey Menon and Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert. Recently two books by David Laine on Shivaji have faced a similar fate.
Shuddha then invited Sudheer Pattnaik, a media activist and journalist from Orissa to share his thoughts. Sudheer contextualised his presentation within the contemperory situation in Orissa and spoke pf the culture of questioning that has been emerging from amongst the tribals, the peasantry and the fishing communities who for decades have been promised development and well being through the setting up of by big projects such as NALCO and the Rourkela steel plant. Over the years people have realized the hallowness of these attempts to gain popular legitimacy. Interestingly and pointedly it is not only the state that is trying to repress this questioning through measures that are completely violative of human rights like mass arrests but various arms of the civil society too are not far behind in suppressing the voice of the people. The mainstream media, corporate sector as well as the NGO’s have joined in the chorus of a "conspiracy theory” and finger pointing at possible "culprits" who have “instigated" the "innocent" tribals. This theory rests on the belief that the poor are not capable of thinking for themselves. It also makes it a crime to share the truth with people.
Sudheer shared that his group the Independent Media consisting of filmmakers, writers and journalists have been trying to share this process of questioning by different groups of people with others in similar position in Orissa. They have been producing Samadristi an Oriya fortnightly news magazine and also creating videos, screening films and producing diverse literature that challanges the censorship being faced by the people.
Jitman Basnet, a journalist and lawyer from Nepal now living in exile in Delhi shared his personal experience of censorship both by the Maoists and the monarchy. He was abducted by the Maoists for publishing in the monthly magazine edited by him, Sagarmatha Times , reports of the destruction caused by the political group. Subsequently he was arrested by the Royal Nepal Army and kept in detention for over 9 months for writing against the human rights abuse by the army and about the private assets of the king. Giving a broad outline of the climate of censorship that prevails in Nepal today, Jitman, said that over 20 journalists and 1500 political and human rights activists
are still in custody of the Royal Nepal Army. More than 500 Nepali people are missing for the past 4-5 years .Press censorship is being forced on the media and no adverse reports on the monarchy are allowed. Several places in the Kathmandu valley have been declared restricted areas where no demonstrations or protests are allowed. Civilian areas have been bombed by the army and these have resulted in the death of so far uncounted civilians.
Hasan Zaidi, filmmaker, journalist from Pakistan and also director of the Kara Film Festival talked of the anomolous situation in Pakistan today where under the present military regime media has seen a huge boom. Karachi alone has 9 FM radio channels and all over Pakistan atleast 25 new private television channels have come up. Hasan also shared that with the increase in TV channels there has been a reduction in the diversity of programming. Fierce competition for audiences has resulted in the complete phasing out of more "serious" programming like documentaries.
The media boom in Pakistan has to operate within given restrictions. For example officially FM channels are not allowed to broadcast anything on politics. Some channels have flouted this restriction and one of them has been regularly re broadcasting the BBC’s Urdu news. Similarly although Indian film music is banned it is broadcast regularly by the FM radios. Certain issues are tabboo for all media. Any issue categorised as "in the national interest" and that could include anything, is precluded from media scrutiny. Thus for example, issues related to development if examined from a critical or "hardline" perspective can be a cause of official ire. Similarly the role of the military, though open to being questioned, can only be done at one’s peril. After 9/11 there has been a debate and requestioning of what constitutes freedom of expression and this has led to self censorship within the media. Hasan also talked about the role of the multinationals as censor bodies, apart from the state, since they provide funds for media outfits.
Vinod Jose from the Free Press a Malayalam magazine that was published from Delhi by a group of young journalists shared how the periodical was forced to close done by the state and business interests. Letters from readers to the magazine were routinely scanned by the IB. Bundles of magazine on theirway to Kerala would be picked up by the intelligence agencies. Increasingly no press in Delhi was ready to print the magazine and for some time it was printed from a press in Meerut. The newsprint suppliers too refused to supply newsprint under pressure from the state agencies. Distributors of the magazine as well as the Kerala based reporters were harassed and pressurised
to leave the Free Press. Vinod Jose’s family and acquitances too were questioned by the police.
Sharing with the audience the possible reasons of this continuous harassment in the 16-17 months of the Free Press’s existence Vinod talked of the investigative stories that the magazine had done about some of the biggest corporate interests in the country. One of the article had exposed the role of Reliance in the black economy and had listed 300 benami companies that operated from Reliance address and had taken crores worth of bank loans. He also talked about another investigative story on Intel Microsoft project in Kerala to impart computer education that had been riddled with corruption. Another article had exposed the succesful attempt by a South India based
industrialist to get a river transferred to his name! This had led to a stay order in the court.
Malathi Maithri a Feminist poet writing in Tamil talked about the need to speak out when violence and exploitation of all manner is being unleashed by the poweful. There is
a need to formulate one’s own means of resistence. Sharing her personal experience of being a women poet writing on female desire and the body she shared how large sections of a conservative literary mainstream had labeled her as an "anti cultural element" and she has been reported by the
press as being "immoral". She said that women poets like her were not only writing about desire but also about the material hardships faced by women. However the latter aspect has never been highlighted by the literary mainstream who have been vocal about their outrage at women writing about sexuality. Feminist today, said Malathi, is one of the most abusive terms in Tamil
Andres Viel, noted filmmaker from Germany talked of the subtle and hidden ways in which censorship can be exerted by a coalition of interests that includes the state as well as economic forces. Direct economic pressure in the form of threats to stop advertisements are an effective way to silence investigative reports. Another way is more subtle. Journalists can be threatened with not being given a future chance to get any more information about a company if they were to persist in carrying on with their present story. Andres talked about his personal experience with censorship during the making of Black Box Germany when his house seemed burgled without any
forced signs of entry or anything missing. It was a subtle threat that worse could follow. This form of censorship casts a shadow of fear and the longer this form of subtle intimidation continues the greater the erosion of confidence in the journalist or filmmaker about the validity of his investigation. This can eventually lead to self censorship.
There was a vibrant discussion following these presentations. Sanjay Kak and Lawrence Liang spoke about the censorship regime posed by copright laws in the west and its advent to India. The discussion then geered back to Sudheer Pattnaik who spoke of his group’s long term strategy plan to organise readers collectives to protect their magazine from being shut down as Free Press had been forced to do. The need to mobilise people – readers, audiences – as a vibrant and active force to challenge the censorship regimes was stressed.
Arundhati Roy however made an insightful observation that it is easier to organise people to protest against censorship of information around "just" causes such as development but society itself can pose a threat to freedom of expression when it is seen to be violative of existing norms as in the case of Malathi Maithri and other women poets writing about female desire in Tamil.