The Internet and the Indian state...
Date: Thu, 10 Jul 2003 12:13:50 +0530 (IST)
URL : http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=7238
IndiaPopulation : 1,025,096,000Internet users : 16,580,000Privately-owned
ISPs : yesThe Internet's promising future in India is hampered by poor quality
phone lines and pressures from the government. Two laws, one of them
passed after the 11 September attacks, allow monitoring of the
Internet and criminalises much activity by users.
Parliament approved the Information Technology Act in May 2000 to
crack down on cybercrime, which it defines as unauthorised access to
electronic data. Hacking is punishable by up three years in prison and
heavy fines. Cybercaf�s and the homes of Internet users can be
searched at any time without a warrant if cybercrime is suspected and
those who set up "anti-Indian" websites can be jailed for five years.
The press revealed in March 2001 that police and government agencies
were regularly harassing ISPs to provide personal information about
their customers. The head of one of the biggest ISPs, Rediff.com, said
he was being approached about once a month but refused to cooperate.
The boss of Satyam Infoway, another major ISP, said he was under
constant pressure of this kind.
Registration of cybercaf� customers
The strict legal regulation of the Internet allows prosecution of
anyone violating what the government considers moral and political
rules. In April 2001, police investigated pupils at one of New Delhi's
biggest schools, accusing them of creating a "pornographic" website
featuring their teachers and classmates. The probe began after the
father of one pupil saw the name of his daughter on the site.
The authorities regularly condemn pornographic sites as the plague of
the Internet, but they are hugely popular with customers of the
cybercaf�s that are opening everywhere in major cities. Cybercaf�
owners make a goodwill gesture to the government by displaying warning
notices to discourage their young customers.
Police in Mumbai announced in May 2001 that anyone wanting to use a
cybercaf� there would need to show an ID, driving licence or student
card or for foreigners a passport or plane ticket. Customers deemed
bona fide would be given a special card they could use on each visit.
Cybercaf� owners opposed the measure, but the authorities argued that
they received some 50 complaints a day about credit card fraud,
hacking, supposed terrorist activities or pornography on the Internet.
In June 2002, the Indian Intelligence Bureau reportedly asked the
American FBI to help it develop software to tap into mobile phones and
e-mail messages of members of criminal and terrorist groups. The news
site rediff.com said talks were going on to establish this link
between the two intelligence agencies.
Confidentiality of journalists' sources under threat
In November 2001, an anti-terrorist law (the Prevention of Terrorism
Ordinance - POTO) was passed in the wake of the 11 September attacks, allowing the government to monitor all kinds of electronic
communications, including personal e-mail, without legal restriction.
Evidence gathered this way can be used in court against a suspect. In
an attempt to justify its anti-terrorist and anti-cybercrime policy,
the government said it would share this information with the US
As important users of the Internet, journalists were especially
targeted in the first draft of the new law, which proposed jail terms
of five years for failure to give the authorities information about
terrorists or terrorist organisations. After protests by the
opposition and human rights and freedom of expression activists, this
clause, obliging journalists to reveal their sources, was dropped and
law adopted for a period of three years instead of five.
Tehelka.com brings down the defence minister
This attempt to control the Internet did not however prevent people
from using it as a new vehicle of press freedom. In March 2001, a news
site called Tehelka.com (which means "great excitement" in Hindi)
lived up to its name. Investigative journalists, equipped with video
cameras and pretending to be arms merchants, revealed that
politicians, civil servants and top army officers had accepted bribes
and the services of prostitutes in exchange for helping businessmen
get government and especially military contracts. This corruption
enquiry rocked the political class and the government itself and
defence minister George Fernandes and the president of the ruling
Bharatiya Janata Party, Bangaru Laxman, were forced to resign.
The scandal highlighted the possibilities of the Internet as a new
medium, but also drew a repressive reaction. The editor of Tehelka.com
complained of efforts by the prime minister's office to discredit the
site, accusing it being in the pay of Pakistani intelligence and
organised crime. The journalists who broke the scandal were physically
threatened and had to be given heavy police protection.
About 20 intelligence agents from the Central Bureau of Investigation
(CBI) searched the New Delhi offices of Tehelka.com on 26 June 2002,
as well as the home of one of its journalists, Kumar Badal. He was
accused of hiring two poachers to film and kill two of a protected
species of leopards in the jungle in Saharanpur, in the northern state
of Uttar Pradesh. But the CBI could not produce any incriminating
evidence from among the material they had seized in their searches.
However, the agents reportedly confiscated papers about the founding
of the website, including e-mails from Shankar Sharma, owner of the
company First Global and the first to bankroll the operation, who is
now in prison.
The searches were ordered a few hours before the website's chief
editor, Tarun Tejpal, was due to give evidence to the Venkataswami
Commission set up by the government to look into the corruption
revealed by the site. The hearing of Tejpal, set for the same day as
that of the former president of the Samata party, Jaya Jaitly - the
alleged contact between the defence minister and the arms dealers -
The website's lawyer, Kavin Gulati, said the enquiry had reached a
crucial moment of cross-examining witnesses, which suggested that the
date of the search was deliberately chosen. A CBI spokesman said it
was "sheer coincidence."
Badal was arrested on 3 July and went on hunger strike for several
days in protest against his imprisonment. He was being held under the
Wildlife Protection Act and was humiliated in various ways. "I've been
subjected to all this just because I work for Tehelka, which is
determined to expose high-level corruption," he said.
He was freed on 13 January 2003 on bail of 50,000 rupees (nearly 1,000
euros) by a simple decision of the supreme court. But federal police
vainly tried to block his release, saying investigations were not yet
complete. Badal was put under house arrest in New Delhi and has to
report to the CBI on the first Monday of each month. He was also
banned from going to the Saharanpur district, where the complaint
against him was filed.
The harassment of Tehelka partly explained why the site announced in
early 2003 it could not longer keep up a daily edition. Tejpal said
that despite the reputation the site had gained and the praise it had
received, Tehelka had been relentlessly victimised because of its
revelations about the military. For two years, the staff had been
harassed and arrested, and had shrunk from 120 to three, and the
site's debts had mounted. He said he hoped the site would eventually
return to help build free media in India.
Journalist jailed for downloading material from the Internet
Police in New Delhi charged journalist Iftikhar Gilani, New Delhi
bureau chief of the Kashmir Times and correspondent for the Pakistani
daily The Nation, with spying for Pakistan on 7 September 2002 by
passing on details to Pakistani officials of the position of Indian
troops and paramilitary forces in Kashmir. The charges were based on
clauses of the Official Secrets Act and also articles of the Penal
Code relating to criminal conspiracy and pornography. He had been
arrested on 9 June.
After first accusing him of financial irregularities, spying and
involvement in pornography, police then said he had downloaded a
document from the Internet about the fighting in Kashmir and had
admitted it was to be handed to Pakistan. This material was available
to any member of the public, but the judge in charge of the case said
she had not had time to look at the website in question to check.
Gilani said he had been beaten by other detainees at Tihar prison,
near New Delhi, and refused access to the library. His several
requests for release on bail were rejected.
An army intelligence official told a judge on 23 December that no
secret information had been found on Gilani's computer, obliging the
government to drop prosecution of him and ask for his release. When he
came out of prison on 13 January 2003, he called on journalists and
politicians to see that the state secrets law was repealed.
The independent news site Tehelka
The Department of Telecommunications
The independent magazine Frontline
The computer magazine Dataquest
Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press
freedom throughout the world, as well as the right to inform the
public and to be informed, in accordance with Article 19 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reporters Without Borders has
nine national sections (in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy,
Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), representatives
in Abidjan, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Montreal, Moscow,
Nairobi, New York, Tokyo and Washington and more than a hundred
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