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Abuse of the law has had a chilling effect on free speech in India, says global advocacy group PEN

The organisation's new report said, ‘A relatively small number of aggrieved citizens can successfully deter many others from speaking out on sensitive issues'.

India’s democratic freedoms are at risk because of vague and poorly applied laws, online harassment and the fear of retaliation, states a report released by international free speech advocacy group PEN in collaboration with the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program on Monday. The report, titled Fearful Silence: The Chill on India’s Public Sphere, was based on interviews with authors, activists, journalists, film-makers and lawyers from across the country, the organisation said.

It highlights “cases of film censorship, intimidation of writers and journalists, the arbitrary use of the law and online harassment”, and blames the abuse of India’s “vague and overbroad legislation” for the problem. It mentions the experiences of Jawaharlal Nehru Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad, adding “a relatively small number of aggrieved citizens can successfully deter many others from speaking out on sensitive issues.”

In 2015, PEN had published a nearly 150-page report, Imposing Silence: The Use of India’s Laws to Suppress Free Speech, “about the use of outmoded legislation to stifle free expression in India”. The group chose India for the project after seeing media reports about banned books, intimidation of journalists, and citizens facing charges for online activity.

Read the 2016 report here.

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