While many people in India think that we have freedom of speech, things are actually quite bad.
There are two well-respected global rankings in this field:
- Reporters Without Borders has a `Press Freedom Index'. For 2010, they show India at rank 122 out 178 countries. In their ranking, Nepal and Jordan and Qatar are more free than India.
- The other prominent ranking is by Freedom House. For 2010, they place India at rank 72 out of 196. In their ranking, Hong Kong, Benin and Tonga are more free than India.
Why are things so bad? The Constitution does not establish freedom of speech as a fundamental right. Laws of colonial vintage punish free expression, and new laws (e.g. connected with the Internet) have not shown a greater interest in free speech. Books are regularly banned, journalists or bloggers are regularly imprisoned or killed. It is a war zone out there.
See India puts tight leash on Internet free speech by Vikas Bajaj in the New York Times on 27 April.
I was hence quite surprised to see reporting by Sanjib Kumar Baruah in the Hindustan Times where he quotes the minister for information and broadcasting, Ambika Soni, as saying:
"Our media is probably the freest in the world"
It is bad enough to have a fundamentally flawed Constitution and laws where free speech is not enshrined. The least we can do in this unhappy situation is to recognise that we have a serious problem and go solve it. We are better off without such Orwellian claims.
Similarly, Amartya Sen, writing in the New York Review of Books notes that there is more free speech in India than China. Yes, there is. But should we get pleased when we are good when compared with one of the more thuggish states of the world? India needs to set its sights higher.
We like to think that while we're poor, we're one of the better democracies out there. Okay, if so, shouldn't we be atleast in the top quartile in international rankings of freedom of speech? That would mean getting to a rank of 45 (instead of 122) in the ranking by Reporters Without Borders, and a rank of 49 (instead of 72) in the ranking by Freedom House. To get there, we will need to first start by acknowledging that we have a problem, instead of engaging in triumphalism.