Freedom to publish: an interesting but vexed expression

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Freedom to Publish is an interesting expression very widely used in recent times. It is perforce a very vexed question, posing difficulties not just in terms of judging what constitutes violations of such freedom but in the adherence to it. Sesh Seshadri, Director, Lonely Planet, shares his views on the same.

If we review the publishing scenario in India in the ’70s, there was no discussion on Freedom to Publish. Awareness was poor, and there were many subtle ways by which freedom was curtailed. The examples of banned books from India and overseas are legion.

How did this landscape change? Was the tolerance level higher in those times? Or was this due to lack of information? Historically, educational content has been influenced by the political party in power, and there were no major protests, though this would be a good case study on the subject of the freedom to publish.

The key contributing factor for better understanding of the subject of the freedom to publish is the wider reach of electronic media and, more recently, of social media. There is so much of dialogue, and there is unlimited, anonymous, freedom to publish on social platforms. Think of how our television channels look like slot machines, with so many boxes and running lines.

The approach to the idea of freedom to publish has not been consistent, and is fraught with challenges. Publishers, authors and illustrators naturally have differing viewpoints. In the early years, a successful, well-read editor would become a publisher willing to appreciate bold and good writing. She would promote and defend the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Today, content that is non-sectarian or secular in nature seems hard to come by. Moreover, in recent times, publishing houses have been driven by senior managers who are protectors of the bottom line, and willing to compromise on content in order to protect profit and growth. The entry of vote-bank politics driven by caste, language and religion has increased violations of freedom of expression. In the past, some of these violations included hate-filled attacks such as the public meetings of Periyar E V Ramasamy. Read today, some of his speeches would be interpreted as a deliberate, organized attempt to spread terror, and silence dissenters. There was no one to demonstrate that rule of law was paramount. Today, such is power politics that the very approach to publishing has changed to the extent that political and religious views cannot be debated or expressed in safety. Does this mean we are at a tipping point of strangling freedom of expression?

The International Publishers Association reported after their visit to Bangladesh that “regressive legislative changes, poor law enforcement, lack of practical governmental support for the principle of freedom of expression, attempts to weaken independent media and an ineffective justice system have all contributed to an ongoing tragedy, where dissenting voices are being silenced through imprisonment, self-censorship, exile, violence and even murder.”But, then, how are we going to be different from our neighbours in this respect? How are we to address similar issues in the future, and be alert in protecting our freedom to express and publish?

Obviously, this situation applies to all platforms where content is accessed. Electronic and print media need to introspect about what they deliver. How many newspapers and magazines would be willing to close down their matrimonial columns and supplements, which carry caste-based and sub-caste-based advertisements? When will electronic media stop analyzing election results by showing percentage of votes by religion and caste? I am pointing out these specific examples because it is the same media that shouts and argues for freedom.

The publishing of school textbooks has always been vulnerable to the influencing of content by the powers-that-be. There are about thirty state-sponsored publishing houses; in my view, we either need to shut them down, or bring in independent guardians of these institutions in order to produce suitable content for our school-going children. Perhaps this role could be modelled on the lines of the election commission, or the comptroller and auditor-general of India.

On review, one can find many factual errors in classroom materials being used today. For example, in chapters in history textbooks on Ancient India from many state publications (say, for instance, on a subject such as the spread of Buddhism in India), it is easy to observe that an unbiased representation, based on fact and evidence, with a proper historical perspective, is difficult to come by.

Eager, impressionable children should be able to have access to knowledge that is non-partisan, and in language that is neutral in tone, so that they can learn in a free, fair and open atmosphere. If right to education is a fundamental right, surely it is a concomitant right to learn in such an atmosphere? It is only under these conditions that the true goal of education, which is to teach people to think for themselves, can be achieved. Schoolbook publishers, entrusted with the power to influence and mould young minds through the materials they present, must solemnly pledge themselves to this no-less-than sacred duty.

Content licensing, buying and selling digital resources is another key area which needs to address the issue of freedom to publish. Such licenses are acquired at very high fees, given that a single license can reach many institutions. It is not unknown for international publishing companies to compromise on their content because of the value of deal, as they did in two recent cases. Public relations companies should also become accountable. When you read the advertorials you know what I am referring to.

Content remains a core asset for any publisher with many paths available for distribution and access. Can this content be published with freedom? The stakeholders in this game are many, which include print and electronic media houses, publishers, social media platforms, bloggers, and so on. Every one of these entities has as much responsibility as the State.

Ultimately, we should be open to debate in order to have the freedom to publish.

The Director of Lonely Planet India, Sesh Seshadri is one of the most established names in the publishing industry today. His current role is to create a sustained and successful presence for Lonely Planet in India. He also established a publishing consulting company O.V.E.R.L.E.A.F. in 1997 which passionately works towards furnishing classrooms with quality learning and providing world class teaching resources.

For more on Sesh Seshadri’s views on the Indian publishing landscape, see, Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Books Business, edited by Nitasha Devasar. Pages 26 & 39 have more details.

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