Indian government vows to uphold freedom of expression

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s new government sought to ease concerns that freedom of expression is under threat yesterday, promising to strengthen the independence of the state-run broadcaster and to consider allowing more foreign investment in Indian media.

Fears for freedom of expression have grown this year, particularly after a controversial book on Hinduism was withdrawn from sale following criticism from hard line Hindus.

The withdrawal of The Hindus: An Alternative History by academic Wendy Doniger in February by publisher Penguin came months before the Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative Hindu nationalist party led by Narendra Modi, won a landslide election victory.

The Information and Broadcasting Minister said he understood that many publishers feared prosecution under a law that bans acts intended to offend religious feeling, which Penguin said made it very difficult to uphold international standards of free expression.

“I am willing to meet publishers and listen to them,” Prakash Javadekar told the TV channel Headlines Today. Concerns that Modi’s government will take a tougher line with the press and publishing industries are “absolutely unfounded”, he said.

Javadekar said the government will consider allowing foreign direct investment in India’s news industry above an existing cap of 26 per cent, although he did not believe in 100 per cent foreign ownership.

The government will also restructure the state-owned broadcaster to strengthen its editorial independence and improve accountability, so that it more closely resembles the British Broadcasting Corporation, Javadekar said.

The BJP accused the previous government of meddling with the broadcaster after parts of an interview with Modi on the state-owned TV channel Doordar-shan in April were allegedly removed. The then-government strongly denied any interference.

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