Sunday, April 20, 2008

Freedom of speech, but only if China's happy?

The subject of freedom of speech in China is making quite a crusader out of me. It's also making a crusader out of Mr N. Ram, editor of one of India's leading newspapers, The Hindu, but on the opposite side. The Hindu in its editorials has come out in favour of China's bloody crackdown on protesting Tibetans, and chosen to remain totally silent about that country's ruthless suppression of anyone who even midly supports the protest. Indeed the Reader's Editor of the same paper has expressed skepticism about the paper's bias in its Tibet coverage: "Why" he adds "was The Guardian, otherwise used extensively, ignored?".

A very reasonable letter recently sent by friends of mine to Mr N. Ram (and quoted in full on my blog "Press self-censorship on Mount Road", April 16 2008) has this to say:

"Just recently, the Chinese Government arrested Hu Jia, one of China's most prominent human rights activist and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for criticising the Communist party in his writings (it would be amusing, if it were not so tragic, to think that a law of this kind in India would involve the imprisonment of the editors and owners of virtually all newspapers...)"

The letter goes on to suggest that the Hindu is taking "a purely partisan one sided view of the issue by aligning itself unquestioningly on the side of the Chinese Government". However, the Hindu doesn't seem to agree, and has not printed the letter so far.

Now going through some old emails, I found that Mr N. Ram, under very different circumstances, turns out to be quite a supporter of freedom of speech. In 1998, Dr T. Jayaraman of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (funded by India's Department of Atomic Energy) wrote some articles in the Hindu's Frontline magazine, opposing India's nuclear weapons programme. For this he was warned by his Director that disciplinary action may be forthcoming. Ultimately the Director was persuaded to back off following pressure from the scientific community, including a signature campaign signed by 170 TIFR scientists (I conducted that campaign and sent him the results).

Here are the words of a jubilant Mr N. Ram, in a posting on an internet forum, after the above story concluded:

"A quiet watch on the IMSc situation and continued vigilance in defending the right of Indian scientists to express their views freely, especially on matters of great social and moral concern like nuclear weaponisation, are necessary. However, we should be clear that the backing off itself represents an important gain for science, democracy and sensitive public action in India. The large-scale response of Indian scientists from leading research institutions in Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore and rising support from scientific colleagues elsewhere have been the leading factor in bringing about this success.

Congratulations to them and to all those emailers who took the initiative in spreading the word on Dr Jayaraman and the IMSc, thereby helping achieve an inspiring outcome at least for this stage. Let me also compliment Professor Ramachandran for backing off just in time to avoid major controversy, although not for his understanding of what freedom of expression and criticism means for scientists."

While it was a perfectly valid democratic option to oppose the Pokhran II tests, this also happened to be a line that would have pleased the Chinese government at the time. So for some people, freedom of speech appears to be OK when it makes China happy, and not OK otherwise!

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