Until 24th of March, the digital generation of India was reined by a draconian law deterring free speech through Internet. On that day the Supreme Court entirely struck down the Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act on grounds of vagueness, overreach, and the chilling effects it has on online speech. The Netizens and social media activists in India are enthralled by their regained right to free speech in the digital arena.
Indeed, looking at the hundreds of daily messages appearing in social media that are potentially punishable, one would assume that obviously many Indian citizens either were not much aware of the presence and gravity of section 66A of the IT Act, amended in 2009, or did not care about this deplorable law presupposing their fundamental right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitutions of India. These posts were more than sufficient for them to be arrested and put in prison.
The impact of the law passed in 2000 was that the Section 66A could have been used to penalise anyone who used the Internet to send “grossly offensive” and “menacing” messages. Ever since its initiation, the Section had been repeatedly besought to curb even the mildest criticism of political personalities, not to mention grave disagreements. Many prominent political leaders have used the notorious law for arresting those who have disseminated apparently benign content in online forums raising a threat to individual’s fundamental right to freedom of expression.
The legal battle that resulted in the scrapping of the Section started with the arrest of a young woman who ‘liked’ an innocuous post in Facebook (the infamous Shaheen Dhada case of 2012), which caused a nationwide stir of social media activists and opened a debate over online free speech. Soon, the constitutional validity of the law was challenged in the Supreme Court by a young law student, Shreya Singhal, with other individuals and organisations subsequently joining the case.
Apart from the epic nature of the on going fight of individuals for the right to expression as well as the sacred disposition of the Jurisprudence that upheld the public’s freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a), the victory has major significance in the post modern India.
Technologically speaking, the New Media supported by Internet and Web 2.0 has become a very powerful and effective public media channel. Information and opinions are circulated through New Media instantly, extensively, and inexpensively through an unimaginable web of networked individuals and communities. This has not only challenged the linear ways of information dissemination customary to print and broadcast media but also democratised the information and its flow as well.
We observe a shift in the political consciousness of the Indian youth. The young Indians had been organised and arrayed under various ideological banners of political parties after the independence, nevertheless, in the last few years we see educated young people distancing from the traditional political ideologies suffocated by inefficient governance and rampant corruption of all levels. Though this section, which comes around more than half of the total population of India, experiments with emerging political movements there is neither a well-organized and promising forum that satiates their political aspirations nor a platform for articulating their voices. Internet, in fact recompenses this political vacuum and virtually organise the otherwise fragmented sections with an evolving political consciousness. It also offers them an audible space where they can safely initiate and consolidate meaningful and purposeful deliberations.
Internet is a public forum where opinions are expressed, heard, shared, liked or disliked and agreed or disagreed. A democratic system functions well only where people’s voice is adequately and proportionately represented. This was a service usually taken up by the mainstream media popularly called the Fourth Estate. Though mostly the ‘press’ had maintained the democratic system serving to be watchdogs and whistle blowers there had been instances of failures due to their growing alliance with corporates, political and commercial organisations as well as their occasional deliberate silences. New Media has drastically changed and challenged this in and out. In social media the common people gets a platform to speak up and ensure their voices are heard. Internet thus becomes an alternative media, polyphonic in nature.
The increasing level of animated discussions and political involvement by the public in the recent past through social media is to be seen as direct participation in the public sphere. Some of the great successful revolutions of our times were facilitated by social media. The momentous movement, India against corruption and the Nirbhaya agitation were incredibly propelled by the participation of the youth though social media along with the real human heroes who pioneered and spearheaded them on the field. On the contrary, a number of instances can be shown when the mainstream media and prominent political parties have deliberately ignored public interests because of their biases and vested motives. In such times the popular voices in the social media have pushed social causes into successful campaigns.
It was indeed this great power of the common man delivered by the new media and Internet technologies that the lawmakers intended to control through inconsiderate law making. Paradoxically, those who should have been safeguarding freedom of speech (miss)used this law for political gains, nevertheless been unanimous refusing to comply with the Right to Information Act in 2012!
Fascinatingly, the fight for right to online free speech was not initiated by political parties or mainstream media. While the academicians, journalists, experts and other social activists did not find much value in fighting the battle, it was an unpopular young law student who took the case to the court and gained the ambitious judgement.
The Church and Christians in India need to keep abreast to the verdict and its religio-cultural implications.
First and foremost, the Church needs to recognise that New Media is a powerful force shaping public opinion. It is the prevailing media alternative. In an alarmingly evolving political environment where the national and religious identity of Christians are constantly being threatened and challenged as well as when the Church lacks any influential national mainstream media the leadership and the members of the community shall think about employing this alternative to the maximum benefit. They have to dare into the world of social media and make a meaningful and resolute presence. Internet and social media have to be perceived as a social space and forum and the young people shall be encouraged to make their presence in the digital domain.
The court, while defining free speech has distinguished between three forms of speech namely discussion, advocacy and incitement. It has held that mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause, howsoever unpopular, is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). The Church then has to develop clarity and strategy about ways of advocating religion rather than being intimidated by the fundamentalist groups and ideologies. However, no one shall lead discussion and advocacy to the level of incitement, which is when Article 19(2) is violated.
In a context when youth come to the fore making their distinctive voices heard, the ecclesial leadership has to learn to respect the young aspirations and promote their voices in constructive and productive ways. This calls for not only allowing more participation for the young people but also creating conducive environments for the same. Obviously this situation demands more transparency and willingness to come down to the grassroots from the part of authorities.
The court has implicitly acknowledged that the right to critique and oppose are essential parts of the freedom of speech. One cannot demand to control another’s legitimate speech merely because they are annoying. This being the spirit of the law, the Church has to take a positive and constructive stance against offensive opinions by presenting answers and explanations in rational and convincing ways than reacting in sentimental ways or seeking legal provisions.
Being Church is to live fearlessly and create an environment where there is no fear for anyone. Church doesn’t need to be afraid of freedom speech and expression, nor be daunted by new media and youth. Instead it should ensure increased participation of the youth who would be the face of the Church tomorrow. Let the Church be a joyful experience for everyone and a promising place where fear does not prevail (Is 41;10; Lk 12:30; and John Paul II’s recurring assurance). For, we worship a God who is Truth, the Truth that liberates everyone.