Posted on 20-11-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

“Vae, puto deus fio” (Dear me, I must be turning into a god.)

– The emperor Vespasian on his deathbed.

One wonders whether Bal Thackeray (obituary here) uttered some similar sentiments.  Evidently the Maharashtra police seem to think that a new deity has been added to the Hindu pantheon.  In the latest assault of free speech in India, a mild Facebook rant and a Facebook like ended with the arrest of two students.  The “offensive” post questioned why the whole city of Mumbai was forced to shut down on the death of a private citizen when national heroes were ignored.  The resulting criminal charge was “hurting religious sentiments” of Thackeray’s followers who followed up the police complaint by ransacking an orthopedic clinic run by the original poster’s uncle – which does bring up the question why Shiv Sena goons keep trashing hospitals…but i digress.  The terrified young women have withdrawn the post and apologized for the temerity of engaging in free speech.

Indian civil society and social media is now up in arms and the state government has promised strict punishment “if the policemen are found guilty” – i.e. nothing will happen.  The Shiv Sena thugs are typically unrepentant.   India has lately been showing a depressing tendency to crack down in free speech on social media.  Many colonial era laws enacted to suppress dissent have been retained by India after independence to preserve communal harmony.  The result is a thin skinned populace that runs to the police every time anything remotely offensive gets uttered.

This is creates a mockery of India’s guarantee of free speech. As previously noted on this blog, freedom of speech implies the freedom to offend – otherwise it would not be a freedom that needed codifying.  In India, thin skinned crybabies are using loosely drafted laws to suppress any dissent.  This is rapidly becoming a gut-check moment for Indian democracy.  Will it retain the liberal free speech traditions embodied in its constitution and encouraged by its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru?  Or will it continue down the road traveled by his grandson Rajiv Gandhi – whose government was the first to ban Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

So far India’s vibrant civil society has loudly challenged such free speech violations.  Yet India’s politicians and their (sometimes uniformed) thugs continue to persist in such conduct.  Without stringent electoral and legal consequences for such acts, Indian free speech will remain under siege.

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Posted on 14-09-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

Free speech has been in the news a lot lately.  From the blasphemy set up of an underage Pakistani Christian child with Downs syndrome, to a cartoonist who hurt the tender sensibilities of India’s ruling class and in the last few days the Islam bashing cheap production that predictably has drawn mobs out all over the Muslim world.  Two questions are raised by these brouhahas.  First, is violence, particularly mob violence, an appropriate response to speech – however insulting?  Second, what is the culpability of the person uttering the offensive speech?

On the first issue, I cannot think of any justification for the type of rioting taking place in Egypt and now Yemen and other places (Libya may have been a terrorist hit on the anniversary of 9/11).  On a personal level I suppose I can make a case for self defense in the event of imminent bodily harm.  The penalization of fighting words varies across the globe – though typically is a prosecutable offense in certain jurisdictions and not a license to fisticuffs.  But in the final reckoning, the primary blame should fall on the person who responds to words with violence.

A few years ago I had a discussion with a hyper-religious neighbor who was loudly asserting that free speech was not a license to say whatever you wanted.  The comment was ironical given that he did not understand that his previous statement informing me of my ultimate fate in hellfire for my choice of deity was extremely offensive even if it was a core belief for him.

Freedom of speech implies the freedom to offend – otherwise it would not be a freedom that needed codifying.  The obvious question is how far can you offend and what can you make offensive statements about.  On this issue there is wide divergence.  Countries prone to ethnic or religious violence are very sensitive about statements intended to incite, and they prohibit such statements.  Others like some European countries have tried to erase a history of discrimination and prohibit racist of bigoted statements in a surfeit of political correctness.  And then you get countries like Pakistan, where the practitioners of the whose majority religion are so insecure in their faith that they penalize blasphemy with the death penalty.

The problem with these restrictions is that they infantalize public dialogue to the level of the most thin skinned cry baby in the community.  Blasphemy laws are even worse because they can be misused.  For lightening the mood of this discussion Monty Python’s mockery of blasphemy laws in a Life of Brian is posted below:

 

 

In my opinion the American rule of free speech is something that should be a desirable goal.  It requires maturity on the part of society to take to heart the old nursery rhyme on Sticks and Stones.  But while I disagree with criminal liability for the speaker, I do not wish to absolve them of any criticism.  It is one thing to toss out a provocative hypothesis to advance a discussion.  It is another to throw a match on gasoline in the form of taunts, abuses and other offensive statements just to get a rise out of someone.  Most human beings engage in self-censorship from time to time as a basic element of good manners or the understanding that rights do not exist in a vacuum.  They co-exist with responsibility in creating the obligations of citizenship.  The American constitution (in contrast to the Indian constitution) does not explicitly spell them out, but they are implied in the desire to form a more perfect union.  By leaving it to implication they are relying on the judgment of the citizenry in deciding the narrow line between advancing public debate and tossing the match.

In my opinion the producers of the Islam bashing film and for that matter the Islamophobes who infest the right-wing commentariat do the latter.  So while the rest of us protect the rights of these bigots to speak, we should be free to condemn as harshly as possible the content and intent of the speech.

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Posted on 11-09-2012
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

A mural in Corvallis, Oregon put up by a Taiwanese American businessman has drawn the ire of China.  It depicts “riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.” See the picture here. Consular officials contacted the mayor to express their displeasure at the mural.  The should have stopped there.  But perhaps used to pliant officialdom in other parts of the world (like in India when the visit of Chinese officials is a signal to sanitize New Delhi from those pesky pro-Tibet demonstrators), they went further and asked for help in getting this taken down because Tibet and Taiwan are internationally deemed parts of China (though Taiwan is not necessarily deemed part of the corporatist state in Beijing).  They received a helpful response from the mayor’s office that the first amendment prevented them from taking any action.

And then the silly consular officials went to Corvallis in person (something few people unaffiliated with Oregon State University or attending a sporting event typically do) to make the  case in person to protest “political propaganda.”  Gee whiz!!  What part of free speech and the First Amendment did you not understand.  Perhaps Baidu censors the definition of free speech and the First Amendment to the United States constitution.  But a quick Google search gives you the easily comprehensible this and this.  Now evidently the second meeting did not have any demands but perchance they were attempting the strategy in the video below:

 

 

Well suffice it say a doubling down with a strenuous objection does not trump the first amendment either.  Sadly, given its track record China could seek revenge in the form of petty retaliation against relatives of the offending businessman who make the mistake of travelling to China.  Such are the insecurities of rising superpowers.

 

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Posted on 10-09-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

This weekend I posted about the travails of Aseem Trivedi, who is being accused of sedition for mocking venal India politicians who deserve to be mocked.  Trivedi’s alleged offense is mocking national symbols, the constitution etc.  However, a blog article I noticed right now made a very important point.  It notes that all Trivedi did was mock India’s Parliament in cartoon form.  India’s politicians have degraded the entity they shed crocodile tears far more grievously and far more frequently.

The complaint that landed Trivedi in jail was a private complaint.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  So dear Indians, start filing these complaints against these political thugs.  Harass the hooligans who turn Parliament and the legislatures into physical battlegrounds by hauling them in court for sedition, like they did to Aseem Trivedi.  If the police officers refuse to register your complaints, file sedition charges against them too.  But above all act within the strict letter of the law.  Turn these draconian laws on their head.

A few months ago when a hockey stick wielding uniformed apparatchik was harassing Mumbai’s night life I had joked to a friend who was particularly worked up that they should use Section 3 of the Prevention of insults to National Honour Act, 1971 to their advantage.

3.     PREVENTION OF SINGING OF NATIONAL ANTHEM
whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extended to three years, or with fine, or with both.

When the apparatchik interfered with them, make sure to file the proper police complaint under strict letter of the law.  Make sure the judges are aware of the minimum punishments in Section 3A.

3A.        MINIMUM PENALTY ON SECOND OR SUBSEQUENT OFFENCE
Whoever having already been convicted of an offence under section 2 or section 3 is again convicted of any such offence shall be punishable for the second and for every subsequent  offence, with imprisonment for a term, which shall not be less than one year.

A Google search as I was typing this article discovered that this draconian act was already being used for civil disobedience.  Sadly in that case the high court is shielding the bureaucrat whose reaction to the protest was to basically abuse criminal law.

India’s political and police systems are ridiculously out of control.  In the aftermath of partition and secessionist movements in different parts of the country, India’s politicians realized the utility of Colonial era police laws that remain on the books.  But many of these laws are antiquated and grant a private citizen the right to initiate complaints.  Perhaps it is time for Indians to use them against their tormentors, and bury them with paperwork in strict accordance with the letter of their ridiculous laws.

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Posted on 28-04-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

The New York Times is the latest paper to point out the free speech crushing scope of English libel law.  The balance between the right of individuals to be let alone and the freedom of the press to do its job is inherently fraught with tension.  American law has reduced the privacy expectations of celebrities and generally prevents defamation and libel actions for expressing opinions (as opposed to the statement of fact).  The freedom to express opinions in England is far weaker and worse the default rule to inflict legal fees on the loser allows larger corporations to crush individuals (in contrast American law does not require a payment of legal fees unless expressly mandated by statute or contractual provisions).

The chilling implications on free speech are obvious (and this is in addition to the recent trend in England and Europe to introduce blasphemy prosecutions).  South Park mocked the libel tourism generated by English libel law a few years ago in its episode “Trapped in the Closet”.  For full episode click here.  Clip below:

In response Congress unanimously passed the SPEECH Act making foreign libel judgments that do not comply with the First Amendment unenforceable in the United States.  California, New York, Illinois and Florida have also enacted such statutes.  While American residents can breathe easier, other less fortunate mortals will have to hope they do not offend deep pocketed plaintiffs who can sue in England.  One wonders what will be the tipping point for the country that first gave individuals the freedom of habeus corpus to clean up this assault on free speech.  Unfortunately with the paparazzi out in full force for the royal wedding, it may take some time.

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The facts are disturbing.  A plainclothes police officer pulls over a motercyclist for speeding on an interstate highway by waving a gun before producing any identification.  The motorcyclist captured the incident on tape with a camera in his helmet and posted the video on YouTube.  And remarkably the prosecutors throw the book at the motorcylist for having the temerity to record a public official in a public space, using wiretap laws intended to protect individual privacy.

Anthony Graber faced 16 years in prison for recording a public act while plainclothes officer Uhler’s irresponsibility in drawing his gun without producing any identification was defended as “appropriate” because the gun was never pointed at Graber.  The double standard on privacy does not seem to have bothered police or prosecutors.  Law enforcement regularly and aggressively challenges the rights of defendants to privacy, sometimes in their own home.  But these standards evidently did not apply to the men wearing the badge.

The last decade has seen a steady erosion of civil liberties.  However, today common sense won out.  Today Judge Emory A. Pitt, Jr. dismissed charges against Graber noting that “[T]hose of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation. ‘Sed quis custodiet ipsos cutodes’ (“Who watches the watchmen?”).”  The judge dismissed the expectations of privacy by noting that the acts “took place on a public highway in full view of the public. Under such circumstances, I cannot, by any stretch, conclude that the troopers had any reasonable expectation of privacy in their conversation with the defendant which society would be prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

The good judge also noted that the prosecution’s interpretation of the video camera on Graber’s helmet as a “device primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of oral communications” would make “almost every cell phone, Blackberry, and every similar device, not to mention dictation equipment and other types of recording devices” illegal.

So Graber walks free and Maryland’s effort to prevent private videotapes of the sort that exposed the Rodney King beating falls short for now.  In an age where President Obama invokes state secrets to reserve to right to assassinate an (admittedly vile) US citizen, it is a rare victory for liberty and common sense.

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Posted on 27-10-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

Kudos to the Obama administration for clarifying that they oppose the ridiculous UN motion regarding defamation of religion.  It is understandable that Muslims are upset about the assaults to their faith by prominent western politicians and the infamous Danish cartoon controversy.  But this resolution undercuts at the very essence of free speech and the exchange of ideas, even obnoxious ones.  What makes this resolution even more offensive is that it is being sponsored by countries like Saudi Arabia which do not permit free exercise of religion, prevent the importation of religious texts of other countries and insult other faiths in their academic curriculum.  Many of these states also have blasphemy laws that are often used to abuse religious minorities.  Even with some of the offensive comments made regarding Islam in the last decade and the documented cases of discrimination against Muslims, the West does not have any reason to feel defensive about their record on respecting religious freedom (particularly given the track record of some of the accusers).  People have noted that while the Saudis have funded the construction of a mosque in Rome, they are unlikely to permit the construction of a church in Saudi Arabia.  Freedom should work both ways.

This brings up a conversation I had with an extremely religious neighbor a few years back that free speech should not allow people to offend.  Actually it should…otherwise the speech is not truly free.  The assault on free speech is not unique to any ideologies, but it should be pointed out that free speech also does not  prevent others from calling out bigoted or hateful comments.  There is some unintended irony in the attempt by Muslim countries to pass such a resolution.  All of the founders of the Abrahamic faiths (including Islam) would have likely violated this resolution by “defaming” the religious practices of their neighbors.  But then this is not really intended to be an ecumenical resolution.

The Canadian representative at the United Nations this March got it right, “Individuals have rights, not religions.”  The OIC would be better off in assisting the victims of discrimination, cooperating with the West in combating incidences of bigotry and cleaning up their own acts at home.

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