India Sunday signed off on a joint statement by G-7 and guest countries on “open societies” that reaffirm and encourage the values of “freedom of expression, both online and offline, as a freedom that safeguards democracy and helps people live free from fear and oppression”.
The statement also refers to “politically motivated internet shutdowns” as one of the threats to freedom and democracy.
The ‘Open Societies Statement’ was adopted at the end of an outreach session titled ‘Building Back Together—Open Societies and Economies’, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited as a lead speaker.
Participating through video-conference, Modi said that “democracy and freedom were a part of India’s civilisational ethos”. However, he “shared the concern” expressed by several leaders that “open societies are particularly vulnerable to disinformation and cyber-attacks”.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Modi also stressed on the need to ensure that “cyberspace remains an avenue for advancing democratic values and not of subverting it”.
The joint statement was signed by the G-7 countries, and India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa, with host British Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling them “Democracies 11”.
While the statement is directed at China and Russia, India has been under scrutiny over Internet curbs in Jammu and Kashmir even as the Government is locked in a face-off over its new IT rules with tech giants such as Twitter, which described a police search at its offices in India last month as a “potential threat to freedom of expression”.
The joint statement at G-7 said: “We are at a critical juncture, facing threats to freedom and democracy from rising authoritarianism, electoral interference, corruption, economic coercion, manipulation of information, including disinformation, online harms and cyber attacks, politically motivated internet shutdowns, human rights violations and abuses, terrorism and violent extremism.”
It is learnt that New Delhi signed off on the statement after making its reservations known to the negotiators from G-7 countries. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who had participated in the G-7 Foreign Ministers meeting in May, had said that “open societies and personal freedoms require careful nurturing. Must be on guard against fake news and digital manipulation.”
However, Indian government sources said that India doesn’t have any reservations on the final joint statement. “We have signed off on it,” a source said. Sources also pointed out that while the the statement is directed at China and Russia, the situation in India was not discussed at the G-7 meeting.
The “open societies” statement also affirmed “human rights for all, both online and offline, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments, and opposition to any form of discrimination, so that everyone can participate fully and equally in society”.
It said that democracy includes “each citizen’s right to vote in free and fair elections and everyone’s right to assemble, organise and associate peacefully, within a system of accountable and transparent governance”.
It also committed to “strengthen open societies globally by protecting civic space and media freedom, promoting freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of religion or belief, and by tackling all forms of discrimination, including racism.”
For India, these are important commitments amid global concern over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that was cleared by Parliament in 2019.
Another G-7 statement — not signed by India and other outreach countries — hit out at China on “human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea. It also called for a transparent and timely WHO Covid origins study in China.
On the second day of the outreach sessions, Modi also took part in another session titled ‘Building Back Greener: Climate and Nature’. Highlighting the non-democratic and unequal nature of global governance institutions, he called for the reform of the multilateral system as the best signal of commitment to the cause of Open Societies, the PMO said.
In the session on climate change, the Prime Minister highlighted that the planet’s atmosphere, biodiversity and oceans cannot be protected by countries acting in silos, and called for collective action on climate change.
Speaking about India’s “unwavering commitment” to climate action, he mentioned the commitment by Railways to achieve Net Zero Emissions by 2030. He stressed that India is the only G-20 country on track to meet its Paris commitments.
Modi also took note of the increasing effectiveness of the two major global initiatives nurtured by India — the CDRI and International Solar Alliance.
The Prime Minister stressed that developing countries need better access to climate finance, and called for a holistic approach towards climate change that covers mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, climate financing, equity, climate justice and lifestyle change.