Internet free speech and its impact on women in India
"Targeting me for my journalism is fine. But when it is sexist and foul-mouthed abuse, which insults my gender identity I get incredibly angry. In the beginning I used to retaliate, but that would lead to more abuse.
- Sagarika Ghose, Journalist for CNN-IBN, India
The Internet allows people to obtain access to a wide plethora of information, and provides free of cost platforms for them to share their own views on various matters. Different laws per country govern free speech on the Internet, and while a few, like the USA and Singapore, do take Internet content monitoring seriously, many do not. This leads to a series of problems in context with trolling, cyber-bullying, other misuses of free speech, and sometimes, the offline targeting of individuals who share strong or controversial opinions online. The term “free speech” is loosely defined, and often leads to controversies.
2012 saw the arbitrary arrest of two young girls in Mumbai; one of the girls, Shaheen Dhada, had questioned the state’s shutting down in mourning of the death of Bal Thackeray, a political stalwart. The other girl had “liked” her friend’s online status update on the matter, and the two were attacked by angry supporters of the politician, who broke into their homes, vandalized their family’s businesses, and hauled them to the police station at 10pm. They were initially charged under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code for hurting religious feelings and Section 66A of the IT Act for offensive messaging through a communication device; the former charge was later changed to 505(2), creating enmity.
Female members of the media too, are not spared for sharing their opinions online. Sagarika Ghose, a well-respected television channel journalist was recently attacked online and threatened with gang rape and other consequences. Her “crime” was to share her personal thoughts about a certain politician. The result of this opinionating on a free speech platform was threats to her life, personal safety, and shockingly, the revelation of her daughter’s name, classroom number and school address. Ghose has vowed not to opinionate further out of fears for her child’s safety and her own.
Activist Kavita Krishnan was recently trolled and bullied during an online chat with the public about violence against women; ironic considering the subject of the chat. The website which was hosting the chat did not block the abusive participant, and took a long time before issuing a belated apology to Krishnan for the sexual harassment and rape threats which she had faced online.
The Constitution of India defines “freedom of speech and expression” under Article 19(1)(a) and states, “ All citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression”; this indicates that all three women who were attacked were well within their rights to express their feelings online. They did not violate laws, and certainly did not deserve threats to their life and personal security even if they had inadvertently overstepped legal boundaries. Internet free speech must come a long way in defining itself clearly and selecting appropriate penalties for those who bully, troll, and otherwise harass innocent women.