Suppressing facts

It is a matter of grave concern that the Department of Telecommunications, acting on orders of a Gwalior court, has blocked scores of URLs (uniform resource locators) that carried articles critical of the controversial Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM).

In doing so, the government has acted again to stifle the articulation of opinion on the Internet. IIPM’s questionable functioning was the subject of articles that were carried online by several well-respected publications and reproduced too in blogs.

Piqued by their revelations, IIPM’s director Arindam Choudhuri filed a string of defamation cases against the publications. Interestingly, the cases were filed in rather remote towns such as Gwalior and Silchar rather than in Delhi or state capitals.

It was evident that Choudhuri’s strategy was aimed at making life so difficult for his critics that they would stop writing negative stories. Taking this strategy to the next level, the IIPM director asked the court to issue an order blocking the ‘defamatory websites.’ It is unfortunate that the Gwalior court complied with such a request and worse, did so without giving the defendants the chance to provide their side of the story. 

The blocking of the URLs not only amounts to silencing of opinion and the right to freedom of expression but also it is an attempt at preventing information from reaching the public. Among the URLs that were blocked is one on the University Grants Commission (UGC) website, which carried a document clarifying that the IIPM is not recognised by the UGC or authorised to award degrees to its students. The court order has thus abetted in the concealment of facts, even the suppression of information.

The blocking of URLs criticising IIPM and its director sets a bad precedent. It will encourage other individuals and institutions anxious to prevent knowledge of their illegal activities, poor governance, corruption, etc from becoming public simply by going to court and pleading they were being defamed. This has implications not just for the freedom of the Indian media but for the individual’s right to freedom of expression.

Schools like IIPM have built their reputation on aggressive advertising rather than academic excellence. While they are free to choose their path to establishing their name they cannot silence opinion that is critical of their functioning.

Millions of students in this country make their decisions based on diverse opinion expressed in the media. They cannot be denied the right to access such information. Silencing criticism is untenable in our democracy.

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