India - August 2023
Controversial data protection and press bills passed
In August, the Indian legislature passed two highly anticipated and contentious bills related to press freedom, freedom of expression, and the right to information. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, approved on 11 August, aims to oversee the management of digital personal data, protect citizen rights, foster innovation, and enable government access for “legitimate uses” i.e., for national security and emergencies. Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar hailed it as a "significant milestone" that was written following extensive consultations, although critics argue that meaningful public consultation only occurred with the 2022 version, leaving previous years' concerns unaddressed. The revised version allegedly differs from the 2022 version and fails to address long-standing concerns regarding the bill's broad exemptions, which grant extensive powers to the executive branch. Chandrasekhar has responded to the criticism noting that “There will be checks and balances within the government to ensure that this power is not misused.”
Simultaneously, the Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill 2023, passed on 3 August, seeks to streamline media business operations and decriminalize colonial-era prohibitions. However, media advocates warn that some provisions could expose media outlets to government interference, especially if labelled 'non-compliant, terroristic, or seditious.’ The International Federation of Journalists, Indian Journalists Union, and Editors Guild of India have called for a comprehensive review of both bills, expressing fears of increased government surveillance and journalist censorship, potentially undermining the Right to Information Act.
Controversy over academic freedom
In response to political and university backlash to a research paper, Ashoka University faculty member Sabyasachi Das resigned, followed by another professor’s resignation in solidarity. The paper, which addressed potential manipulation of the 2019 general election, triggered a debate on academic freedom. Scholars criticized the university for distancing itself from the paper and establishing an ad-hoc committee to scrutinize its findings beyond the peer-review process. Many faculty members threatened to strike unless Das was reinstated, noting in an open letter that university involvement in investigating the merits of Das' study "constitutes institutional harassment, curtails academic freedom and forces scholars to operate in an environment of fear." On 21 August, Intelligence Bureau officials visited the campus and enquired about Das' research paper. The incident highlights growing concerns about government interference in educational institutions. The 'Academic Freedom Index Update 2023' report has observed a decline in academic freedom in India over the past decade.
Supreme Court suspends Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in defamation case
On 4 August, the Supreme Court (SC) issued a stay of the conviction of Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case from March 2023, regarding his remarks about the Modi surname. The SC decision permitted Gandhi to resume his parliamentary duties on 7 August and participate in the upcoming 2024 general election while processing his appeal before issuing a final ruling on the defamation case. The SC observed that the trial court failed to provide adequate justification for imposing the maximum two-year jail sentence, which led to Gandhi's disqualification under the Representation of People Act. However, the SC also cautioned that his comments were not in good taste.