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Today, Embassy News has published an op-ed by two IHRP clinic students, Evan Rankin (2L) and Amy Tang (3L). The opinion, which is online and will be in Wednesday’s hard copy, urges Prime Minister Harper to put the issue of freedom of expression on the agenda for this week’s talks with India’s PM Narendra Modi.
Embassy News is Canada’s only newspaper that exclusively covers the country’s international portfolios and which is read widely by policy makers and diplomats in Ottawa and around the world. For ease of reference, the students’ opinion is reproduced below.
Amy and Evan are the authors of a forthcoming report on freedom of expression in India that we expect to release in mid-May to coincide with the anniversary of Modi’s first year in office. The report will be published jointly with PEN Canada and PEN International. (Amy and Evan also published an analysis of last month’s historic Supreme Court of India decision striking down laws that censor speech on the internet. The blog post is now available on the IFEX Network website).
A huge congratulations to Amy and Evan for publication of their piece (and all their hard work this term!)
Published: Sunday, 04/12/2015 11:21 pm EDT
Freedom of expression is essential to democracy and combatting corruption, and facilitates economic growth. Canada and India have been negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement since November 2010. The importance of trade relations between the two countries will undoubtedly be on the agenda when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa from April 14 to 16.
But a meeting that is silent on India’s dismal record on freedom of expression—a fundamental human right—would be a missed opportunity. We believe that bilateral negotiations with India must be informed by the increase in censorship in the world’s largest democracy. Anything less risks Canada’s increasingly shaky reputation as a global leader in human rights.
As a potential future preferential trading partner, Mr. Harper should speak with Mr. Modi about India’s vague, overly broad, and overlapping laws that violate freedom of expression. Indeed, while Canada’s track record on freedom of expression is by no means perfect, Canada’s censorship laws are significantly narrower than India’s, and yet we have managed to foster a peaceful, vibrant, and respectful multiculturalism.
Much of the Indian Penal Code is a colonial antique, but its excessive restrictions on dissent and free speech have largely been embraced by the Indian state, eager to maintain public order in a religiously and culturally diverse society. In India, you can go to jail for defaming someone (even if the contents of your statements were true), or because you insulted “religious feelings” or committed an act that is prejudicial to the maintenance of “harmony.”
The threat of criminal prosecution itself creates a chilling effect on expression that silences not only marginal voices but major publishing houses. Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn from the Indian market by Penguin Books in February 2014 when it was alleged that the book insulted religious feelings and violated India’s blasphemy law. Penguin India felt its hands were tied, claiming that the vague and overly broad blasphemy law levelled against it makes it difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression.
The story is not entirely gloomy. Last month, the Supreme Court of India struck down a controversial internet censorship law which criminalized “annoying,” “inconvenient,” and “insulting” electronic messages and would see violators thrown in jail. The law was used to entangle students, professors, tradesmen and others in costly legal proceedings. In one case, the alleged offence was emailing an image that satirized a government minister. Unfortunately, in the same decision, the Supreme Court failed to strike down laws that require internet service providers to take down offending content based on complaints by the public.
The vague, overly broad, and overlapping censorship laws still on the books threaten the country’s 1.27 billion citizens with imprisonment or fines for merely expressing an opinion, writing a letter to a newspaper, or drawing a cartoon. Political speech is often specifically targeted. Many of these laws blatantly violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty to which both India and Canada are parties.
As Canada looks to deepen its economic relationship with India, it is in Mr. Harper’s interests to encourage Mr. Modi to build on the Supreme Court of India’s recent ruling by amending or repealing the web of laws that infringe on the internationally recognized right to free expression. This timely opportunity is a test for both governments’ willingness to take human rights seriously on the international stage.
Evan Rankin and Amy Tang are students enrolled in the International Human Rights Program’s legal clinic at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and are authors of a forthcoming report on freedom of expression in India.