Free Speech in India 2018 The State Rolls On

04, Jan 2019 | Free Speech Collective

A Report by the FreeSpeechCollective

Overview: The State flexes its muscles, other assaults continue unabated

Free speech in India came under attack on all fronts in 2018. Alarmingly, even as assaults continued unabated, the State was all set to take on the mantle of the chief censor with repressive regulatory and surveillance mechanisms being put in place even as the year was winding down.

There was no respite from the killings and attacks on media professionals, censorship of news, an unprecedented number of legal notices and defamation cases and sedition cases filed against journalists, social and political activists and citizens who voiced dissent.

To make matters worse, there continued to be a high degree of Internet censorship throughout the year, with the highest number of shutdowns anywhere in the world. The Union government, through an order by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), authorized ten agencies to monitor, intercept and decrypt the digital devices of all citizens, an order that has grave implications for journalists.

In 2018, seven journalists were killed in relation to their work, at least 27 incidents of attacks on 33 journalists, arrests of at least ten journalists and the detention of six others (including three foreign journalists), at least 17 instances of threats and harassment and 114 instances of censorship of news, film, academia, cultural events and public meetings.

The unreasonable and illegal restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in India came from multiple quarters – the State, both at the Centre and respective state governments, non-state actors and vigilante groups like the Karni Sena in Rajasthan, Maoists in Bastar, members of political parties, student groups aligned with political parties or corporate houses that use legal mechanisms like defamation cases and even the judiciary with at least nine free-speech related contempt cases.

The grim picture immediately preceding an election year has raised apprehensions that there will be further State regulation and control of dissent, even as corporate houses and political groups seek to clamp down on news with SLAPP suits and defamation cases.

Highlights of 2018:

  • Seven journalists killed  due to their work.
  • No convictions in past cases of killings of journalists; total impunity continues on killings of journalists in India.
  • Karnataka SIT arrest 16 persons — several of them linked to Sanatan Sanstha, its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and other radical Hindutva groups — in connection with Gauri Lankesh’s murder.
  • At least 27 attacks on media persons and citizens, some life-threatening cases; petrol bombs on journalist’s residence, college lecturer doused with kerosene.
  •  Instances of threats and harassment  increase, more vicious and dangerous. Online harassment of women journalists continues.
  • At least 10 journalists arrested while six others (including three foreign journalists) were detained for different periods, the longest being the one year detention of a journalist in Manipur under the National Security Act (NSA).
  • At least 114 instances of censorship, ranging from curbs on news in print, broadcast and online media; protests and cases against film titles, songs and dialogues and bans on film screenings; disruptions and vandalism in documentary film screenings, theatre performances and art shows, cases lodged against authors and take down of content in school text-books.
  • In 2018, 16 persons arrested, while seven were booked and one detained, for expressing dissenting views on social media platforms
  • Critics of political parties, leaders and of heads of government, both at the states and the centre, were picked up and jailed.
  • At least 133 instances of internet shutdowns in India, documented by the Internet Shutdown tracker of the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC).
  • Increase in takedowns of online content, both at the behest of corporate houses and the State.
  • Increasing surveillance by the government on the accounts of social media users. Transparency reports by Facebook and Twitter testify to increase in government requests for information about user accounts.
  • Several attempts by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to regulate media, including setting up a social media monitoring hub, a committee to regulate online content and revamping a Central Press Accreditation Committee to vet journalists.
  • Union Government seeks encryption access from Whatsapp.
  • Union Ministry of Home Affairs allows ten “Security and Intelligence” agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt data on any computer.
  • Draft rules under the Information Technology Act, 2000, to make it mandatory for online platforms to “proactively” ferret content seen as “unlawful”, and break end-to-end encryption. The government will hold public consultations but only gives time till January 15, 2019 for submissions.
  • Successive state governments, including those of Telangana, West Bengal, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab bring in slew of regulations and legislations covering entry into state assemblies, defamation, social media, fake news and blasphemy.
  • At least 37 free speech related defamation cases, filed by corporates, political party leaders and those accused in the #MeToo movement.
  • Nine free speech-related contempt of court cases in a year in which the judiciary has been under the most intense scrutiny and began with the historic press conference by four senior-most judges.
  • Of the four freedom of expression-related sedition cases, two were related to social media posts, including against Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla. Madhya Pradesh resident, 21-year-old Junaid Khan spent five months in jail on sedition charges for being administrator of a Whatsapp group in which allegedly objectionable posts had been made. Delhi police file a draft charge-sheet in JNU sedition case against students.
  • Judiciary continues to provide relief, but slowly and unevenly. Courts reject restrains on media coverage of the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case and RK Pachauri sexual harassment case against him but awarded injunctions in other #MeToo cases. However, the media was restrained from reporting on the FIR filed against former Orissa High Court Judge I M Quddusi, an accused in the medical college bribery case.
  • Supreme Court quashes FIR against actor Priya Prakash Varrier and dismisses petition seeking ban on Malayalam book Meesha, permit live streaming of hearings of court cases.
  • Madras High Court orders burning of over 2000 books, authored by octogenarian writer Nedumaran.
  • Justice R.K. Gauba of the Delhi High Court restored an injunction on the publication and sale of Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev published by Juggernaut Books.

Author: Geeta Seshu

Editor: Laxmi Murthy

Contributors: Ashlin Mathew, Geeta Seshu, Malini Subramaniam, Laxmi Murthy, Shone Satheesh

Note: The incidents in this report have been diligently cross-checked via multiple sources. Information about discrepancies or additions can be sent to:

For the full report click HERE.


Feature Image(representational image): The camera of an injured photographer lies covered with blood on the 15th floor of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel 08 April 2003. Five people, including a Spanish cameraman and three staff of British news agency Reuters were wounded when the hotel was hit during fighting between Iraqi and US troops acoss the capital. AFP PHOTO/Patrick BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)


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