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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Supporting free speech, but not criticism of government

In today’s India, civil society and citizens must realise that if tide against cracking down on free speech is to be turned, developing support for free speech is important


Updated: June 25, 2021 9:11:02 pm
In countries around the world, the public seemed to be less tolerant of government criticism in private than in public.

Written By Jacob Mchangama and Raghav Mendiratta

The year 2021 has been a tragic one for India so far. The country has witnessed a devastating second wave of Covid-19 with the official death toll being over 3,50,000. Coinciding with this, 2021 has also been a year of unprecedented levels of attack on free speech and association — the very freedoms which Gandhi regarded as “the two lungs that are absolutely necessary for a man to breathe the oxygen of liberty”. Unfortunately, according to our new global survey, the crackdown on free speech seem to be supported by a broad section of the Indian public.

In the last few months alone, Delhi Police has made international headlines for visiting Twitter’s India offices to “routinely” investigate its policies on tagging content as manipulated media. The Union government has strong-armed Twitter into removing tweets critical of Prime Minister Narendra Covid response. A 22-year old climate activist has been among the many activists arrested for mobilising support for the farmers’ protests, and multiple FIRs have been filed against journalists for reporting on Covid deaths and oxygen shortages.

These instances are not isolated but are emblematic of the systematic crackdown on freedom of speech and expression over the last few years. In this context, it becomes crucial to analyse whether free expression is diminishing only due to lack of political will to let it flourish (shortfall on the “supply” side through harsh laws), or due to the devaluing of this right amongst the public (a deficit of “demand” due to reduced support).

Our team at the Future of Free Project conducted a global survey in 33 countries with close to 50,000 respondents to develop the Justitia Free Speech Index that assesses the overall support for free speech in different countries. The survey was based on answers to eight questions about the willingness to allow controversial types of speech, such as the ability to offend religion and minority groups and to publish information that could affect national security.

The survey found that both globally and in India, the support for freedom of speech stays strong in principle, but declines when applied to trade-offs and supposedly competing values. Eighty-nine per cent of all respondents in India said that it was important to them that people could speak freely, in line with the global average of 93 per cent. However, when the respondents were asked concrete questions about controversial categories of speech, such as offence to their own religions and beliefs, support was much lower. Significantly, amongst the 33 countries surveyed, Indians showed the least support for speech critical of the government, landing at only 67 per cent, lower than in countries such as Pakistan (70 per cent) or Russia (85 per cent). India’s 67 per cent support is also significantly lower than other democratic countries such as the UK (96 per cent) or Germany (94 per cent) — a worrying signal amidst the current climate of speech restrictions.

The survey revealed some other findings that showed peoples’ growing political intolerance when indirect questions were asked to reveal subconscious biases. We know that sometimes peoples’ perception of what might be acceptable for them to say in public clouds their understanding of their true viewpoints. To eliminate this “social-desirability bias”, respondents were also asked to rank two “lists” that contained statements about their preferences. This revealed that there existed a significant degree of difference between people’s perceived social support for free speech principles and their private opinions.

In countries around the world, the public seemed to be less tolerant of government criticism in private than in public. This goes especially for India, where support for criticism of government plummeted by 32 percentage points in private. This means that of all the surveyed countries, India was by far the least tolerant of criticism of the government in private, where only one in three (35 per cent) supported the right to be critical of the government. This is about 20 percentage points lower than neighbouring Pakistan. This is a key reason why India ends so unexpectedly low on the Justitia Free Speech Index (number 25 out of 33).

Support for free speech was even lower when asked on specific issues of offence to their religion or speech affecting national security. For example, only 44 per cent of Indian respondents said that people should be free to criticise their religion or beliefs, as compared to 81 per cent in Norway and 79 per cent in the US. Worryingly, India was one of only three countries in the survey where there was a decreased support as compared to 2015 for statements offensive to respondents’ religious beliefs.

When asked indirectly, countries like Russia, Australia, the UK, and some Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey seemed much more secular than they would first appear, which means that they support criticism of religion more in private than in public. Indian respondents too seemed more tolerant/open of criticism against their religions in private as compared to in public, although to a less degree than respondents in Russia and the UK.

In the backdrop of the government’s ongoing battle with Twitter, it becomes pertinent to note that the majority of respondents in India said that fake news must be regulated. However, only 11 per cent of respondents said that the government should be responsible for regulating fake news on social media, perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that government control of the Internet will constitute a grave danger to free and equal speech in India. Thirty-four per cent said that social media platforms should be responsible, 37 per cent said that both social media companies and the government should be responsible and only 18 per cent said that there should be no regulation of online fake news at all.

When the results of our survey studying support for free speech are matched with V-Dem’s Survey (an independent political research institute based in Sweden) of free speech in practice, there appears to be a clear, positive correlation between public support/popular demand for free speech and the actual enjoyment of free speech in society. Of course, correlation must not always be confused with causation. Thus, we are not conclusively arguing that diminishing support for freedom of speech in India is the reason for the diminishing exercise of freedom of speech. We are merely suggesting that diminishing support for free speech amongst the public could also be a crucial reason why governments (in India and around the world) feel confident that overstepping on free media would not have electoral implications.

This hypothesis further finds support when we see that in countries such as the US and Denmark that enjoy a high degree of freedom of expression in practice, there is proportionately greater support for freedom of speech. On the other hand, countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia that score relatively lower on support for free speech also score lower on the practice of free speech.

In today’s India, it is worthwhile for civil society and citizens to sit back and appreciate that if the tide against cracking down on free speech is to be turned, developing support for freedom of speech amongst the people is perhaps as important as protecting free speech through judicial or legislative means.

Mchangama is executive director, Justitia and the Future of Free Speech project. Mendiratta, a lawyer, is legal fellow at the Future of Free Speech project

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