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Status of Free Speech in India – 2016 – a dire three months


IN |
The first quarter has seen not just censorship but violence, sedition and defamation cases, arrests and a murder
Research by NANDITA JHA


The first quarter of this year has been a significant one for issues related to free speech.

Apart from the turbulence in February over the sedition cases filed at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the arrests of students, and the allegations regarding doctored videos, the period saw an overall increase in the number of sedition cases filed, recorded the murder of one journalist, saw increases in attacks on journalists and media property, saw a number of defamation cases filed against the media and the political class, and logged many instances of censorship of different kinds, affecting the media, the arts, as well as ordinary citizens.

This period also saw significant legal developments which affect the climate for free speech, at the level of the supreme court and the high courts.


  • Law of sedition gets a fresh lease of life – 11 new cases filed
  • Fourteen attacks, two arrests and seven threats affect press freedom, one journalist murdered.
  • Seventeen cases of censorship including internet blocks.
  • Six defamation notices sent to the media by the Tamil Nadu government or its ministers in 2016.
  • Fourteen defamation suits  filed involving politicians, six legal notices sent.
  • Supreme Court says mobile internet can be banned under section 144 of the CrPC
  • Supreme Court stays proceedings initiated by UP Assembly on a privilege notice against the editorial management of India Today.
  • Government announces scanning of all media to monitor negative news.
  • Government appoints panel to re-examine film censorship.

The table below illustrates how much free speech became a challenge in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same quarter in two previous years.

Comparative table








11 cases, 19 people





















For details of previous years see here



Nationwide exposure for the sedition cases filed at Jawaharlal Nehru University obscures the fact that cases under this archaic law were also filed elsewhere in the country in the first months of this year, including four cases in Bihar and one each in Haryana and Kerala.

Fresh cases filed

The first quarter of 2016 gave a fresh lease of life to the law on sedition after police stations registered cases under it all over the  country. Eleven cases were filed in different parts of the country, one of which named nine persons. One case was filed in January, seven in February, and three in March. A total of 19 individuals were named in these cases, including 10 politicians, and the first FIR in the JNU case under the sedition law (Section of 124 A of the Indian Penal Code) was against unknown persons.

JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and AIMM leader Asaduddin Owaisi had multiple cases filed against them, in different parts of the country. Others charged included four other JNU students, a Kerala youth for a post on Facebook about an NSG commando killed in Pathankot, an alleged Naxalite in Bihar, former Delhi University lecturer SAR Geelani, former Haryana CM Hooda’s aide, and politicians across the spectrum  in relation to the events in JNU ranging from Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal  and CPM leader Sitaram Yechury  to Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi (as mentioned earlier), Anand Sharma and others.

Sedition – fresh cases

Sedition chargesheets filed

Sedition case dismissed



Three months into 2016 and it has already been a rough year for journalists in the country: one journalist murdered, two arrested, 14 attacks on media personnel and their equipment, and one case of a journalist being held hostage in Allahabad.

Reporter Karun Mishra, Bureau Chief of Jan Sandesh Times was shot dead in Sultanpur in mid-February.

Two journalists were arrested in March in Chattisgarh.

A freelance journalist in Delhi was picked up and summoned to a police station on subsequent days but not formally arrested.

The incidents at JNU saw nine journalists being  questioned by police.


Deaths 1 

  • Another Journalist Killed In Uttar Pradesh Opposition Slams Government 2016-02-14

 Arrests 2

Attacks  14 and one case of a journalist  being held hostage.

Threats 7


Censorship takes many forms, and is triggered by a variety of agents.

The Indian Express reported on March 19 that the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), which operates under the Ministry of Human Resources Development, has introduced a form “which requires authors of books NCPUL acquires annually to declare that the content will not be against the government or the country.”  The paper said that the form, received by several Urdu writers and editors over the past few months, also asks authors to provide signatures of two witnesses.

Meanwhile in Hyderabad on the same day the influential Islamic seminary Jamia Nizamia issued a fatwa declaring that “reason” and Islamic “faith” do not allow Muslims to chant the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’.  Both developments place restrictions on freedom of  speech and expression.

In January in Kamrup in Assam “as part of the strict enforcement of the Government Official Language Act” the district administration decreed that business and commercial establishments would have to use Assamese as theprimary language in signage and hoardings. Shops are no longer free to display their names in a language of their choice.  The order said action would  be taken against violators.

In the same month, ‘Comedy Nights’ actor Kiku Sharda was arrested, bailed out and then re-arrested for mimicking Dera Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in Haryana.

On February 23 the participation of a Pakistani poet Abbas Tabish at a litfest, the Ajmer Literature Festival, was cancelled after right-wing groups warned of protests. The programme, called ‘Shayari: Sarhadke Par’ (Poetry beyond Borders), was organised by the Ajmer Literary Society.

Electronic censorship has also been thriving. There were 8 cases in 3 months. Blocks were imposed both by governments (Haryana and Gujarat) and private sector agencies, including Google, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Censorship of the arts added to the tally of censorship in this quarter.

There was one case of hacking related to the events at JNU.
Hackers deface JNU library website, threaten ‘traitors’ 2016-02-17

Posts and messages on Facebook and WhatsApp caused violence.


Defamation cases against Media

Seven defamation notices were sent to the media in 2016, six from the Tamil Nadu government or its ministers and one from the Vidarbha Cricket Association.

Defamation cases involving politicians

14 cases/suits filed, 6 legal notices sent.



The courts batted both for and against free speech in the first three months of this year. While the Supreme Court’s staying of the UP assembly’s proceedings in a privilege notice against two TV channels, their journalists and their management was a heartening development, the same court upheld the banning of mobile internet under the CrPC though the petitioners had argued that mobile internet was only government by a special law like the Telegraph Act.

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