The authorities in India have triggered an outcry after an anti-corruption campaigner was arrested and accused of sedition after publishing a series of satirical cartoons.
In a move that activists said damaged India’s claim as a refuge for freedom of expression, award-winning cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was remanded in custody at the weekend after a complaint was lodged against him by a lawyer. If convicted, he faces up to three years in jail.
“If telling the truth makes one a traitor, then I am happy,” the tousle-haired Mr Trivedi yelled to television cameras as he was taken to a court hearing today. In an act of protest, he has refused to seek bail.
Mr Trivedi, who has been part of a popular anti-corruption campaign headed by social activist Anna Hazare, had published a series of cartoons in which he mocked those involved in corruption. In one, the three lions that appear in India’s national symbol had been replaced by wolves dripping with blood while another showed the country’s parliament as a large lavatory.
The cartoonist and activist was summoned after a complaint was filed in the courts by a Mumbai lawyer who claimed the cartoons mocked India’s national symbols. The lawyer, Amit Katarnavea, is said to have no links with the government and had acted on his own.
Either way, the decision to detain Mr Trivedi triggered criticism, both domestically and abroad. Markandey Katju, head of the Press Council of India, wrote on his blog that Mr Trivedi had done nothing wrong and that the police officers who had detained him should be arrested.
The former judge said the Nuremberg trials that followed World War Two had shown that for someone to claim they had just followed orders was no defence. “In a democracy many things are said, some truthful and others false,” added Mr Katju. “These are occupational hazards, and politicians, like judges, must learn to put up with them.”
Sixty-five years after securing independence from Britain, India is proud of its tradition of protecting the rights of an independent media. But some observers believe the country may be turning increasingly less tolerant. In its 2011-12 media freedom index, the group Reporters without Borders placed India in 131st position.
Earlier this year, the central government set off controversy when it blocked scores of websites and Twitter identities that it claimed were deliberately spreading misinformation over ethnic violence in India’s north east, even though many of the sites belonged to legitimate news organisations, some of which had not even covered the violence.
Campaigners say part of the problem is that the government does not understand how to engage with online and social media. “There is a lot of anger and there is a lot of creative expression of that anger and the government has not been able to handle it,” said Geeta Seshu, a media rights activist and a contributing editor with The Hoot, an online watchdog of South Asia’s media. “There is a knee-jerk response to anything that seems critical.”
Cartoons have often found themselves at the centre of debates over tolerance. Earlier this year, a Kolkata-based professor was detained by police after distributing by email a cartoon that poked fun of West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. Also this spring there was huge controversy over a cartoon printed in a school textbook of India’s low-caste champion BR Ambedkar.
Mr Trivedi had this week been due to travel to the US to receive an award for courage from the Cartoonists Rights Network International.
Speaking from Virginia, the group’s executive director, Robert Russell, said Mr Trivedi exemplified many of the best characteristics of a cartoonist and said society had to defend the rights of such individuals to “poke fun at the rich and powerful”. He added: “Political leaders have to understand that political cartoonists are part of the territory.”