Members of the international media attending the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress and Fiftieth General Assembly in India this January were surprised that the Indian media did not raise the issue of suppression of free expression in that country.

It’s true that there have been alerts over alleged violations. For example, the government-owned Internet service provider, VSNL, cited national security reasons when it blocked access to Pakistani sites during the recent India-Pakistan border crisis.

And yet Indians truly believe they have an unfettered and free press, and the country’s media outlets know that they enjoy a level of freedom of expression that has prevailed over occasional intimidation attempts by the government, politicians and an increasingly powerful underworld.

If members of the Indian press were concerned about the issue, it is highly unlikely they would choose an international forum to express their concerns. History has taught them that outside support usually comes with strings attached.

They also tend to agree with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s observation that international media coverage of India is almost always negative. Such perceptions are not conducive to building trust.

Sharmini Peries, the executive director of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, attended the IPI congress. She recalled that, in his inaugural speech, Vajpayee was very critical of the international media’s preoccupation with poverty, corruption and India-Pakistan relations, overlooking the country’s positive aspects.

She noted that Vajpayee and almost all other politicians were quick to conclude that there was really no problem with freedom of expression, given the diversity of Indian media. Since media licences are easy to obtain, the politicians basically discount any form of state oppression or censorship.

“This alone is a curious stand for me, considering the Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta faced a lot of trouble filming in India. And then there is the case of the state stopping, without apology, Indians from accessing Pakistani sites on the Internet during the India-Pakistan crisis,” said Peries.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Free Expression Abid Hussein was perceptive in his observations that a different set of methods used to repress freedom is practised in South Asia. In his opening remarks at the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) South Asia Regional Round Table – which followed the IPI congress – he noted that freedom of expression violations manifest themselves under the guise of “national security” issues.

Indians are aware that the right to free expression can easily be revoked. It was in 1977, during a state of emergency declared by the Indian government – then led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. However, her actions resulted in such severe public backlash that she and her political party suffered an ignominious defeat in the next election. While it is comforting to know that the strength of India’s democratic traditions have helped preserve its people’s freedom of expression until now, Indian media outlets recognize they have to remain vigilant at all times.

There are no indications that Indian media feel their rights are seriously threatened at the moment. Journalists continue to write fearlessly: the press criticized the VSNL fiasco as a typical knee-jerk reaction by a bungling government.

Recently a New Delhi newspaper, Tehelka, brazenly lured senior defence ministry officials into taking bribes, and then published their pictures on the Internet, with reports detailing the ease with which the officials fell for the ruse. The newspaper’s investigative reports rocked the fragile coalition government so intensely that it lead to the defence minister’s resignation.

While India’s print media have always been a private-sector industry, television stations have been fully government-owned. However, a few years ago, the Indian government gave up its monopoly over the airwaves. Since then, privately owned TV channels have proliferated.

Private Internet providers now have to use the government-owned VSNL as a carrier, which means that their content can be controlled. But the sector is expected to be privatized in the future. The boom in Internet services offers Indians a source of information that will be difficult for the government to stop effectively.

Many believe that the Tehelka incident portends the shape of things to come, as the Internet will be the ultimate preserver of free choice and free expression in India.

This item is posted with permission from the May issue of the CJFE reporter, a newsletter produced by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.