Who Has the Right to Offend in South Asia?

Anjum Rajabali, Mahesh Murthy, Neville Taraporewalla and Madhavi Goradia

MUMBAI, May 20, 2013 – The past few months in India and around Asia have seen films, books, art and academics become targets of censorship, involving harassment, legal action and even threats of violence.

To discuss the environment of censorship, legal issues, the role of the state and different forms of expression, Asia Society India Centre presented a discussion on Censorship and Society with Madhavi Goradia Divan, an advocate practicing in the Supreme Court, Mahesh Murthy, Founding Partner at Seedfund and Former Country Head of Channel V India, Anjum Rajabali, Screenwriter and Head of the Department of Screenplay Writing in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and Whistling Woods International, and Neville Taraporewalla, Senior Director of Emerging Markets at Microsoft.

Among other topics, the panel explored censorship and the role of the media, rights of citizens to free speech and the impact of the internet. Divan reflected that India has had a history of being a ‘shining’ example of civil liberties and free press when compared to its South Asian counterparts, yet it has still seen infringements on the freedom of press and speech as demonstrated by the arrest of cartoonists and political censorship of films. What is unfortunate, she said, is that government has by and large stood behind the fringe groups that advocate for increased censorship, instead of upholding the rule of law and fundamental freedoms of society. She stressed that street movements to push for government accountability are important, and that social media is one such way in which this can be achieved. Taraporewalla added that the Anna Hazare movement to demand the Lokpal Bill in India was one such instance that was critical, but it was a shame that the movement did not follow as he had hoped. He called for more to be done to demand better government accountability.

Murthy observed that the press is not free. With sponsors and advertisements at the backbone of media funding, Murthy said that what we conceive as culture being shaped by the media is, in fact, merely culture bought by the highest bidder. Culture is in that sense is driven and shaped by purely commercial forces. He also added that a society cannot have free speech without the right to offend. Divan responded that the right to offend should be protected not only when backed up by popular views, but more importantly, when such views are rendered unpopular and controversial. Murthy emphasised his beliefs that there should be no censorship at all.

There was further discussion regarding humour, the role it plays in the media, and how or whether it should be censored. Rajabali emphasised how the media is politically controlled and far from independent and humour is often used as political propaganda, wherein messages denigrate certain communities to further the political gains of a certain fringe group in power. So, he questioned, what do we do when humour is used by the media and especially by cartoonists as propaganda? In response to Rajabali, Murthy claimed that the cartoonists and individuals that do execute humour are exercising their right to freedom of speech. Murthy supported the notion that their views, however controversial and offensive to certain communities, should nevertheless be entertained in the spirit of free speech. He further added that people at the receiving end of humour should develop a capacity and emotional tolerance to receive it.

Reported by Oma Lee, Intern, Asia Society India Centre. 

This programme was presented in partnership with -

Outreach partners include -Bombay Connect, The Cambridge Society Bombay, Clark House Initiative and Columbia Alumni Association