Ninaad Deshmukh

         Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai


Ever since the world entered the industrial age, it has been progressing at an immense rate. All sectors of the economy have flourished significantly. Among the same, the spread of information has seen an exceptional increase. With continually evolving methods of communication and distribution, the media market has become one of the largest industries in the world. But, as long as information and its propagation have existed, so has a significant amount of control over it. It is this control that we refer to as censorship.

Censorship has existed for a long time. Earlier it was imposed on books, articles, journals and pictures printed and circulated by the press. Today we have devised a large number of methods for documentation. Be it from a camera or a smartphone, a recorder or an email, information in this age can be preserved and relayed as and how required. This brings about a need for an increased sense of control over this information, its medium of distribution and its contents.

Censorship is mostly associated with the film, digital and social media industry. Film censorship was born of fire. Early film stock had a compound called nitrocellulose, which was used in explosives as guncotton. Mixed with camphor, it became nitrate film – not explosive, but still violently flammable. In 1897, a year and a half after the first ever film screening, a nitrate fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris killed 126 people. A spate of similar incidents over the next decade resulted in the world’s first cinematograph legislation being passed in Britain in 1909, to improve safety standards by controlling the issue of cinema licenses.

To prevent any such mishaps in the future, it became a norm to have censorship legislations in all states. India also followed the same norm and formulated the Cinematograph Act, 1952. More recently, but on different lines, the Information Technology Rules 2011 defines objectionable content. It includes anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order”.  But, with time, the concept of censorship and its requirement have completely changed.

In today’s times, one cannot physically calculate the extent to which information can be propagated. With the rise in digitization in India and greater access and affordability of the internet, digital media and entertainment platforms, also known as over-the-top (“OTT”) platforms, are becoming increasingly popular with viewers of all age groups and categories consuming the provided content. OTTs are so popular that a lot of people argue that they are on the verge of replacing the conventional television box. The availability of a wide range of content on a single platform, catering to the needs and tastes of a varied audience base, makes such OTT entertainment platforms far more attractive for viewers.

Further, since digital content is not subject to censor certification applicable to films and television programs, the creators of such content enjoy ample creative freedom. At the same time, viewers have the freedom of choice in terms of the content they want to watch at any given time. The scope of this freedom and availability of a wide range of content for viewers could also be a significant factor for increasing viewership of online content and OTT platforms.

All these factors make it much more important to censor the outsourcing of such content. A film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instill or cultivate violent or good behavior. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.

But, recent events have brought into question the actual motives behind censorship and the potential threat of their misuse. Filmmakers in India have constantly battled with not just the governments, but the plethora of communities that get offended on numerous – and often frivolous grounds. The film community now fears that the new rules proposed by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government will make their work and the censorship process even more stifling.

Known as the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021, the proposed new rules will give the federal government certain “revisionary powers”. This means the government can revoke the certification of a film – based on viewer complaints – even if the censor board sees no problem with its content. The draft bill also has provisions to penalize piracy with a jail term and fine. It also seeks to introduce age-based categorization of films.

The bill was received with a large number of protests throughout the film industry, with actors and directors criticizing the policies mentioned within the bill. In the words of renowned actor Kamal Hassan –

“Cinema, media and the literati cannot afford to be the three iconic monkeys of India. Seeing, hearing and speaking of impending evil is the only medication against attempts to injure and debilitate democracy.”

Even OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have faced the wrath of officials, some of whom even registered police complaints against the company’s executives. The government has also introduced new rules asking technology and social media companies to take down content if asked by law enforcement or judicial bodies.

All these events point out to the apparent violation of these platforms’ and industry workers’ freedom of expression and privacy, and amount to unnecessary censorship. Free speech advocates warn that these rules are prone to politicization and could easily be used to target government critics. Although India has historical reasons to be wary of abuse by foreign powers, it still does not account for the excessive restrictions that have been put on not just foreign, but Indian organizations, workers and ultimately the consumers as well.

Thus, the current standing of the government with respect to the censorship laws does not appear to be very correct. Although, one can presume that the government is doing what it is supposed to do, the possible loopholes in the proposed rules that can be exploited do not seem to be coincidental. Hence, the government needs to rethink its policies and take into account the fundamental rights that are of the foremost importance for not just individual citizens, but also the countless companies and organizations that have invested their time and money and contributed to the economic scenario of the country. It needs to find middle ground with the people against the bill, because in a volatile democracy like ours, even the slightest unnecessary restrictions should not be permissible, as the smallest chink in the armor is enough for a sword to cut through it.

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