Freedom, Censorship and State controls


The need for law to be in tune with social transformation is now felt more acutely by the film industry than before. Amol Palekar’s PIL provides just the platform for the Supreme Court to re-examine the legislation and provide directions to the Centre and authorities to tweak the law so it matches the need of the moment. It’s now over to the Centre and its subjects. Ruchi Verma lays the issue threadbare. 

The censorship debate in India has picked up significant momentum in early 2021. That it emanates from the fundamental right to Freedom of Expression provided by the Indian Constitution adds fuel to the simmering debate which involves exponents of media, films, art and literature.

In March 2021, the Indian government announced new rules on how digital and social media should operate in the country. While announcing the rules, Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said ‘it’s a soft-touch oversight mechanism.’

The new rules called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 have modified the protection available to social media and OTT companies. The rules have also increased the expanse of compliance obligations of such entities.

Freedoms comes with riders

Films have always been associated with freedom but the latter is not absolute and comes with riders. In layman’s language, freedom of one person should not curb that of another. In one’s quest for freedom, one must ensure not to break the law. Also, the issue of curbs being ‘unequally distributed,” across media and hence violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution that guarantees Equality is of topical importance.

In 2017, noted actor-filmmaker Amol Palekar challenged the ‘pre-censorship’ of films and, in particular, the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 and the Cinematograph (Certification) Rules, 1983 which, in turn, impose pre-censorship on the freedom of speech and expression of the artistes as well as the audience through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

Censorship vs Freedom of Speech

This issue, however, is not a new one and has existed since the concept of censorship came into being. Palekar touched upon a new issue though in his petition when he contended that in the age of internet and social media, the existing rules providing for pre-censorship of films have to undergo change.

He said, “Today modern technology makes dissemination of information available in real time through a variety of media, many of which are either not regulated or if regulated, not subjected to pre-censorship.”

The content uploaded on social media is free from pre-censorship but the same attract alternation, deletion or cuts when it comes to films, he said seeking a revamp of the Cinematography Act, 1952 and the Censor Board.

Films vs Online platforms

His petition read, “When content on television and internet is free of censorship, the same content being altered, cut or deleted before being shown in a cinema hall is an attack on our right to equality.” In its response to the petition, the Supreme Court then issued notices to the Centre and CBFC asking them both to file replies to the plea. That is being perceived, in itself, as a win of sorts as the moot issues came to fore and got to be examined legally, once again.

According to the Cinematograph Act, 1952, all movies aimed at “public exhibition” will be first examined by the CBFC. The Board can ask for parts of the movie to be cut or removed before showcasing it in public in case it is “against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence”.

Law should be in sync with society

The CBFC is a constitutional body constituted under the Cinematograph Act, 1952. Section 3 of the same, titled‘Board of Film Censors’ provides details of the constitution of the Board, which shall consist of a Chairman and not less than twelve and not more than twenty-five other members appointed by the Central Government.

The main issues highlighted through Amol Palekar’s petition are as follows: First, the role, extent and jurisdiction of CBFC in certifying films and second being filmmakers’ Right to Equality being flouted owing to lack of censorship in screening and airing of content across online fora. The need for law to be in sync with social transformation is felt by the film industry more now than ever. Amol Palekar’s PIL provides the perfect platform to the Supreme Court to re-examine the legislation and provide directions to the Centre and authorities to tweak the law, once again, to match the need of the moment. But, it remains to be seen if the Centre and its subjects will be content with any directives if passed.

Role of CBFC, Censorship

It may be recalled that it was decided by the Supreme Court, in K.A. Abbas versus Union of India, in September 1970 that the CBFC has the right to ask for cuts while certifying a film. The court had then approved of censorship and noted in its judgement, “Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read. The standards that we set for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good.”

It ruled that censorship, including cutting parts of movies before public release, was valid under the Constitution and that films were a powerful media and had greater impact than books.It also ruled that in the absence of any self-regulatory organisation that could suggest or ask for cuts in films, it was up to the government-appointed CBFC to do so. So, the issue of the authority of CBFC to censor and ask for cuts in films too has been tackled in a precedent.

Film censorship analysed by Committee

Fundamentally, the Khosla report, an Enquiry Committee on Film Censorship headed by G.D. Khosla, a former Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court appointed on March 28, 1968 envisaged an “independent and autonomous Board of Film Censors.” It urged repeatedly that the censorship code be drawn up by the Board itself and not by the government. The code, it then suggested, was a diktat by the government, which also acted as the supreme authority for its enforcement.

In the absence of an alternative authority to censor, which, in itself, is not being questioned or refuted, the Supreme Court judgement of 1970 in the K.A. Abbas case, ruled that the government-appointed CBFC was the only available option. But, that was then.More recently are the recommendations of the committee led by Shyam Benegal set up by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to look into revamping the Censor Board.

India all set to establish its own standards

In April 2021, Twitter and other social media platforms took down around 100 posts and URLs after the Indian government asked them to remove content that was ‘critical of the handling of the current medical crisis or spreading fake news around the pandemic.’ The move didn’t augur well with USA and the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “That certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.”

The Indian government, however, is setting its own course to form a comprehensive legal ambit for censorship so that all kinds of media platforms and content that is available for public viewing are taken into consideration.

Ruchi Verma

Ruchi Verma is a media researcher with The History and Heritage Project – A DraftCraft International Initiative to document details, analyse facts and plug lacunae generated by oversight or to further national or foreign agenda in History and Heritage Across India and Beyond Borders