With support from UNESCO’s Global Media Defence Fund, CRNI has recruited a new network of Legal Experts around the world, both practicing lawyers and academics, these bolstering our existing roster of Regional Representative cartoonists. In a series of interviews we get to know a selection of these experts better; today’s subject is Aditi Saxena of India’s Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) where her brief is freedom of expression. Prior to law Ms. Saxena’s field was journalism, working as a reporter with The Economic Times, Mumbai. HRLN is an initiative of the Socio Legal Information Centre (SLIC) providing free legal aid and legal literacy programmes throughout India.
1. Our cartoonists are consistently expressing anxiety about criminalisation. In your view, are they right to be worried?
There is no doubt in the fact that freedom of expression is under attack globally, and cartoonists are not exempted from this either. In the context of India particularly, fabricated criminal charges in the name of national security, defamation, sedition and hurting of religious sentiments have been imposed on journalists, human rights activists
and cartoonists. For example cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition, a punishment for which may be life imprisonment [ed – Trivedi won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award in 2021]. Earlier this year the Supreme Court of India sanctioned contempt proceedings against a female cartoonist for her portrayal of the judiciary.
In criminal law, procedure is as rigorous as the punishment meaning criminal charges invoked against the cartoonists may carry an intention of harassment. In a similar case in India in 2017, a cartoonist faced charges of criminal defamation for his cartoon criticizing the government officials of Tamil Nadu. However four years later the Madras High Court quashed those proceedings against him and found that defamation was not intentional.
Therefore, I would say that the anxiety that cartoonists express about criminalisation is not at all unfounded. In many countries it may take a decade or longer for a criminal trial to conclude and in that sense, the process, more than the punishment is used to harass cartoonists.
2. What is the greatest impediment to freedom of expression in your location?
Currently in India the greatest impediment to freedom of expression is the rise of right-wing sentiments across the country. Today, the identity of those exercising that freedom supersedes the content of the expression. Minorities and their supporters face the most obstacles.
3. Describe the work of your firm or organisation; in particular tell us about any efforts on behalf of minority or marginalised people.
Human Rights Law Network is a close knit network of lawyers and activists across twenty-four locations in India. We also work closely with lawyers and human rights organisations in India. Our work is collaborative with civil society and community-based organisations as well as directly with people belonging to minority and marginalised communities.
We believe in the use of the legal system to assert the constitutional and fundamental rights of marginalised communities and minorities. We work with persons with disabilities, acid attack victims, indiginous communities, religious minorities, human rights defenders, migrant workers and more.
4. Do you consider yourself a human rights defender (HRD)? If so and you are at liberty to describe the experience, have you been the victim of harassment or threat because of your work?
Yes, as a human rights lawyer, I consider myself to be a staunch defender of human rights. The core of my work involves representation in constitutional and trial courts on behalf of members of minorities and marginalised communities to uphold their individual rights and challenge the use (or abuse) of government power.
Personally, and thankfully I have not been a victim of harassment or threat because of my work. But many of my fellow lawyers and activists have been under attack in different forms; physical attack, surveillance by Indian authorities, intimidation via fabricated criminal cases and so on.
5. Have you been involved in any note-worthy cases concerning cartoonists, artists or journalists?
We regularly provide legal aid to journalists, filmmakers, editors and writers against sedition, defamation, fabricated criminal charges and termination of services. Our lawyers have represented various human rights defenders ans particularly journalists in the Supreme Court, High Courts and lower trial courts.
I’d like to highlight some of the most recent and significant instances. Currently we’re representing journalists Kamal Shukla and Kishorechandra Wangkhem who have challenged the law of sedition in India. Both journalists have been charged with sedition in the past. Interestingly, Shukla was charged with sedition for sharing a cartoon critical of the judiciary and government.
Many local journalists were victims of targeted surveillance via the Pegasus tool. Various petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking investigation into the matter by journalists and human rights defenders; we represented an activist and lawyer associated with us, Degree Prasad Chauhan. Eventually the Supreme Court formed a committee to investigate the issue.
Pankaj Butalia is a documentarian who made a film on the unrest in Kashmir in 2010. This documentary was denied certification by the regulatory authority. We represented Butalia in the High Court, where the objection was overturned in 2015. And at present we are representing Butalia in the Supreme Court where he has challenged the
censorship rules in the country, particularly for factual documentaries.
Even during COVID-19 lockdown we continued to represent journalists and artists. Across the country large numbers were dismissed from services or forced to resign by the corporate-owned media. This mass termination was challenged in the Supreme Court and remains pending. During the same time, in Maharashtra, an overbroad administrative order was passed by the law enforcement agency that curbed speech on social media platforms, citing fake news and harm to the reputation of government officials. We represented journalists and artists in a public interest litigation, contending that the order was unconstitutional and an abuse of power.
6. Have you a favourite cartoonist? If so who, and what do you admire about them?
Prior to being a litigator I was a journalist with a business news magazine and a newspaper. In fact I come from a family of journalists. I grew up admiring the iconic RK Laxman, then the cartoonist for The Times of India, since passed away. He was known for his daily “common man” cartoon. Through his art I learned to be critical of government, their discriminatory actions and the impact on our lives.
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