A sand sculpture in Mumbai for victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. An editor arrested after complaints over her decision to publish an image of the French magazine's cover has gone into hiding in India. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)
A sand sculpture in Mumbai for victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. An editor arrested after complaints over her decision to publish an image of the French magazine's cover has gone into hiding in India. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

In India, laws that back the offended force editor into hiding

Mumbai may be 7,000 kilometers from Paris but the debate on freedom of expression sparked by coverage of the January 7 attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is close to home for large parts of the Indian press.

In the latest incident, Shirin Dalvi, editor of the Mumbai edition of the Lucknow-based Urdu newspaper Avadhnama, has gone into hiding after being arrested over a front-page story on the spike in demand for Charlie Hebdo. The newspaper published an image of the magazine’s cover that depicted the Prophet Muhammad carrying a sign saying “tout est pardonné,” (all is forgiven)–but in Dalvi’s case it would appear all is not forgiven.

Dalvi has been forced to go underground, fearing for her safety. But her experience is not an isolated case in India, where critical journalists frequently fall prey to the whims of the offended. The reaction to coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack alone has led to several cases of newspapers being charged for damaging religious sentiment, or coming under pressure from religious groups to issue apologies.

A host of laws mirror the Indian government’s anxiety to maintain harmony in a country that is home to several major religions, and where violence frequently erupts at religious fissures. Attempts to maintain religious harmony often come at the cost of freedom of expression and press freedom–key ingredients to a thriving, multicultural, and democratic society.

This hostile climate for freedom of expression was touched on by Indian journalist Manu Joseph, who wrote in The New York Times in 2013 that India is “a paradise for those who take offense” because the knee-jerk reaction of the state is “to appease those who claim to have been offended.”

In Dalvi’s case, the 46-year-old editor was arrested on charges of deliberately outraging religious sentiment under section 295A of India’s penal code, after police in Mumbai received multiple complaints about her paper, according to news reports. After being released on bail after her court appearance Dalvi fled her home and shut down her office. She faces charges in at least five separate criminal cases and her next hearing is expected on February 11, reports said.

Dalvi issued a public apology, telling the commercial broadcasting network NDTV: “The newspaper has shut down. I and many others have lost our jobs. I apologize to all of them for their hardship. But can I now appeal to those who are still upset: please forgive, forget and move ahead.”

For critics in the predominantly Muslim community of Mumbra where Dalvi lives, her apology is not enough. One member of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, an Urdu-language journalists’ group, told the independent news website Scroll that, under Islamic law, Dalvi committed “a crime that can never be forgiven and the punishment for which is death.” “We are not asking for that. We are only asking that she be given the strictest punishment under Indian law,” he said.

In an interview with Newslaundry, a media review website, Dalvi said: “I have been forced to remain in hiding and have switched off my phone, and face[d] severe mental trauma. I have left my house leaving my two children alone as I try to get bail in the cases filed against me.” She added: “I have never worn a burqa but now feel the need to do so. Some people have commented that this whole episode is God’s way of punishing me so that I am forced to hide my face and that I should not get space for burial even after my death!”

Mumbai police also arrested two local vendors for selling copies of Avadhnama, and charged them under the same law as Dalvi, reports said. The two, who were not named in reports, were released on bail.

To offer a glimpse into just how absurd reactions to press reports can get, in a New York Times piece, “Offended? In India, You Win,” Joseph pointed to an example from 2006 where a Times of India journalist was arrested after a complaint was made over a piece she published a month earlier about a Bollywood actress apparently having a dog named Mustafa (a term for the Prophet Mohammad).

The journalist was released on INR5,000 bail (US$81) and the paper was compelled to offer an apology and a clarification, according to the Times of India. The charges in that case were the same as the ones brought against Dalvi–deliberately injuring religious sentiment.

Penal code sections 295A, 153A which criminalizes actions that “promote enmity” between groups, and section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which criminalizes electronic communication deemed to be “grossly offensive,” of “menacing character,” or that causes “annoyance or inconvenience,” have been invoked to silence or interfere with reporting in India, Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer at the High Court of Delhi who specializes in freedom of speech, told CPJ. Offenses under these laws are considered “cognizable,” which means police can arrest without a warrant, he said. “This makes their chilling effect all the greater.”

Dalvi’s case “definitely points to a continuing pattern of abuse, and the need for repeal,” Bhatia told CPJ.

Dalvi, who has been a journalist for 20 years, quickly ascended to become the female editor of an Urdu newspaper in a male-dominated industry, leading some journalists to argue that her troubles are a result of resentful colleagues. Freelance journalist Jyoti Punwani in a piece for Scroll, said, “When she published a Charlie Hebdo cover in her paper, it seemed a heaven-sent opportunity for all those waiting for her to fail.”

Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of Hindustan and secretary of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, told Punwani, “These people are using the Prophet for profit. And thanks to them, an Urdu paper has been closed and its staffers rendered jobless.”

Whether this was a factor in why Dalvi, who is Muslim, has been hounded, the point remains that India’s archaic and ambiguous laws, many of which are vestiges from British rule, enable an environment where the sensibilities of the offended supersede common sense.

When CPJ published a round-up of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attack, and its impact on press freedom in a StoryMap, India appeared more frequently than any other country in the world for attempts at censorship. On January 15, police in Bhavaninagar registered a case against Zee News for hurting the religious sentiments of the Muslim community by reportedly broadcasting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, according to news reports.

In the same month the Assam State Jamiat Ulama, a Muslim organization, demanded an apology from the Asomiya Pratidin, one the state’s most widely circulated newspapers, for publishing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, according to reports. Another Muslim organization, the Jamat-e-Islami, called for a boycott of the paper, according to news reports that quoted the paper’s editor.

And last week, police charged All India Bakchod, and several film and TV stars who appeared on one of the comedy group’s shows, for offensive content after complaints from right-wing Hindu groups, Christian groups, and nationalist political parties, reports said. The comedy group has taken down the videos. The complaint named YouTube for distributing the video, according to news reports. This latest development has sparked debate in India around freedom of expression and press freedom.

One can only hope that good sense prevails.

UPDATE: The first paragraph has been corrected to reflect the distance in kilometers between Mumbai and Paris.