Free Speech

Fear as the key: Modi regime targets cartoonist Manjul

Print edition : July 30, 2021

A cartoon by Manjul. Photo: MANJULToons

T.M. Krishna, the singer. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

The cartoonist Manjul is the latest target of the Modi regime, which is facing widespread condemnation for its attempt to browbeat social media giants and also control digital news flow through the introduction of new rules that are bound to have a chilling effect on free speech.

As the second wave of COVID-19 raged this summer, one would expect the Central government to be busy tackling the disease. Instead, as reported by sections of the media, it was busy fighting keyboard warriors.

Twitter handles caused consternation to the government, with even uploading of cartoons on social media deemed a threat. The government sent mails to the social media giant, drawing attention to specific handles and, sometimes, tweets. The social media giant, in turn, refused to close down any handle but passed on the message to the users for actions they deemed appropriate.

Govt vs Twitter

Twitter India sent a notice to the popular cartoonist Manjul, whose work drew attention to the government’s incompetence in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. The notice was about a legal request Twitter had received from the authorities to take action against his social media account.

Around the same time, the lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan was told by Twitter about a request from “India” (presumably the Government of India) about a cartoon he shared on his wall that allegedly violated the laws of the land and had to be taken down.

In the past, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, had told the popular cartoonist Shankar not to spare him in his cartoons. Irreverence was respected. Now the nation looks at the prospect of cartoonists being dubbed violators of the law if they so much as draw attention to the government’s shortcomings. The government often did not specify which tweets were offensive; generalities were the order of the day.

Incidentally, it was reported by some news portals that during the second wave of COVID-19, when cremation grounds ran out of space and wood and hospitals complained of paucity of oxygen, 52 tweets were taken down from Twitter accounts following orders from the Government of India. The tweets, it was claimed, spread fake news. They were in reality, in several cases, merely critical of the government’s handling of the COVID crisis.

The Uttar Pradesh government went a step further by punishing a hospital that put up a notice about running out of oxygen. From April to June, it seemed, one could not express anguish, seek help from the larger society, or even laugh at the incompetence of the government on social media. Wherever one looked, one was reminded of Big Brother watching you. Legal eagles, journalists, cartoonists, or doctors—nobody was free to say what they wanted. Freedom of expression was mocked at.

Also read: Cartooning in India

The Supreme Court took note of the situation in April. In a strongly worded statement that sent clear signals to State governments seeking to punish people for social media pleas for help, the apex court said: “We want to make it very clear that if citizens communicate their grievance on social media and the Internet, then it cannot be said it is wrong information.”

The Court added: “Let a strong message go across to all States that we will consider it a contempt of this court if any citizen is harassed for making a plea on social media/media for making an appeal for oxygen/beds, etc. [A] clampdown on information [is] contrary to basic precepts. No State can clamp down on information.”

Amidst all this, the government thought it wise to introduce the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. It claimed that the Rules were to safeguard the common man against social media abuse. In reality, it was an attempt to control the flow of news and current affairs content in digital media. The rule was challenged by Press Trust of India, the country’s largest news agency, besides The Wire news portal and the noted singer T.M. Krishna in petitions in various High Courts across the country.

Targeting Manjul

The attempt to quell voices of protest and dissent started with the social media handle of the noted cartoonist Manjul. In an email to Manjul, which he shared on his Twitter handle @MANJULtoons, the social media giant said that the law enforcement authorities had sought action on the matter.

The letter stated that Twitter had not taken any action on the reported content. It said: “As Twitter strongly believes in defending and respecting the voice of our users, it is our policy to notify our users if we receive a legal request from an authorised entity (such as law enforcement or a government agency) to remove content from their account. We provide notice whether or not the user lives in the country where the request originated.” Twitter also said that it understood that receiving this type of notice could be an “unsettling experience”. It, however, added that it could not provide legal advice.

However, Twitter said that it wanted Manjul to have an opportunity to evaluate the request and, if he so wished, take “appropriate action to protect” his interests. It suggested that Manjul could take legal counsel and challenge the request in court, contact relevant civil society organisations, voluntarily delete the account (if applicable), or find some other resolution.

Also read: Stifling dissent of cartoonists

Manjul, who has over 2 lakh followers on Twitter, responded in Hindi: “Thank God, the Modi government did not write to Twitter to close this Twitter handle. This cartoonist is irreligious, atheist. He does not consider Modi as God. However, it would have been better if the government had clarified which tweet was found offensive. The same work could have been done again. It would have been convenient for people too.”

Media control through laws

It was not just in specific cases that the government wanted to exercise greater control over social media. The government, as it turned out, wanted to quell all voices of dissent. The amendments sought to be introduced in the Cinematograph Act 1952, are aimed at restricting all films critical of the government. A certificate issued by the Central Board of Film Certification would no longer be a guarantee of uninterrupted exhibition of a film in the public domain, with the government reserving the right to overrule the board. The film tribunal meant for aggrieved filmmakers has also been done away.

T.M. Krishna filed a petition in the Madras High Court against the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. He argued against the new restrictions, which he dubbed “arbitrary, vague, disproportionate and unreasonable”. The Madras High Court issued a notice to the Centre following his petition.

In his affidavit, Krishna, who had lent support to the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, claimed that the new rules infringed upon his rights as an individual, artist and cultural commentator. He said: “I submit that the impugned Rules offend my rights as an artist and a cultural commentator by both imposing a chilling effect on free speech and by impinging on my right to privacy. For me, privacy, like music itself, is an experience. When I think of privacy, I think of life, intimacy, experience, discovery, security, happiness, the lack of fear and the freedom to create. I think of liberty, dignity and choice as facets inherent in me and not just as an artist but as a human being.”

PTI also challenged the rules in a fresh petition before the Delhi High Court on July 7. While the Court refused to grant any interim relief, it issued notice to the government on the plea, which said that the government cannot regulate news content. The agency said that the Central government was attempting to regulate digital news media.

Also read: Comic art for serious people

Following the petition, a bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice J.R. Midha issued notice to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The court tagged the plea to be heard along with similar petitions filed by several online news outlets against the new IT Rules.

PTI challenged the constitutional validity of the Rules as they purport to regulate ‘publishers of news and current affairs content’, particularly digital news portals, by imposing “sweeping” government oversight and a vaguely worded ‘Code of Ethics’.

Amidst a clutch of petitions and voices of solidarity for Manjul and others at the receiving end, India’s permanent mission at the United Nations clarified that India’s new IT rules were designed to “empower ordinary users of social media” and were finalised after broad consultations with civil society, industry associations and others. The statement came after three rapporteurs of the Special Procedures Branch of the Human Rights Council raised concerns over the new IT rules. They said that the Rules did not conform to international human rights norms.