International and local journalists and media organisations have reacted angrily to the arrest of an Indian cartoonist, who was detained on sedition charges over the weekend.
The arrest of Aseem Trivedi, a freelance cartoonist and anti-corruption campaigner, sparked outrage from activists who say that Indian authorities have become increasingly intolerant of criticism.
Reports have suggested that the enormous domestic and international backlash over the arrest of the award-winning cartoonist could lead to sedition charges being dropped within the next 24 hours, although he is likely to face charges of insulting the country's national honour instead.
Whether the sedition charges will be dropped or not will be unknown until the next 24 hours but the cartoonist will still have to face charges under Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act and Section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act according to reports.
Calls for Release
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders called for the immediate and unconditional release of Trivedi, who has refused to apply for bail saying that he wants all charges dropped.
"The prosecution and detention of the cartoonist are a gross violation of freedom of expression and information," the Paris-based organisation said.
Trivedi is a winner of the prestigious CRNI Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning, given to a cartoonist who faces danger for exercising his/her free speech rights, according to Cartoonists Rights Network International. CRNI denounced the arrest and called for the recognition of Trivedi’s efforts to expose corruption in India.
CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell said on the group's website: "That a government moves to arrest an anticorruption free speech advocate on what are sure to be revealed as flimsy grounds speaks volumes for the inability or unwillingness of the Indian government to evenhandedly administer its own Constitution."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) echoed calls for Trivedi to be freed in a case that has sparked widespread debate about freedom of expression in India.
"Criminalising Aseem Trivedi's efforts to highlight the serious problem of corruption is a perverse exercise of power and runs completely counter to India's democratic principles," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia programme coordinator.
Trivedi's arrest came shortly after India ordered more than 300 websites, social networking pages, Twitter accounts and other online content to be blocked in an attempt to halt the spread of rumours about ethnic violence.
Trivedi's website which was temporarily blocked in December by Mumbai’s cyber police, has again been blocked by the authorities in India. The site features cartoons showing the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks urinating on the Indian constitution, and the parliament building shaped as a huge toilet bowl.
Aseem Trivedi's controversial cartoon of the Indian National Emblem slogan "truth shall prevail" replaced by "Corruption shall Prevail"
Another cartoon titled "Gang Rape of Mother India" shows a woman draped in the Indian flag being held down by a politician and a bureaucrat as a horned animal depicting corruption appears ready to attack her.
Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai under laws governing sedition, information technology and protecting India's national flag and constitution after a private complaint from a young lawyer based in the city.
A court on Monday ordered the cartoonist to be held in custody until September 24.
Reactions from the local press
The Times of India in its lead editorial on Tuesday called for the British colonial-era sedition law to be scrapped.
"In independent India, instead of being revoked, the sedition law has been used against a variety of dissent," it said.
"Independent India's politicians are clearly using the archaic colonial law as a tool of contemporary intimidation."
“Politicians must learn to be tolerant. This is not a dictatorship,” Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court justice who now heads the Press Council of India, told CNN-IBN television.
The editor of CNN-IBN news channel, Rajdeep Sardesai, in an interview with BBC said he found it "amusing but also very dangerous that you can get away with hate speech in this country, but parody and political satire leads to immediate arrest".
Law Minister Salman Khurshid has insisted that the Indian court system is independent of the government, adding that "there is rule of law and an appropriate procedure... I am sure that the law will take its own course".
India has recently shown sensitivity to criticism of its leaders, with the government responding angrily to a Washington Post article on the struggling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been hit by a string of graft scandals.
Accusations of intolerance over satirical cartoons surfaced in May when lawmakers reacted in fury over an old cartoon being used in school textbooks lampooning B.R. Ambedkar, author of India's constitution.
Source: DCMF, AFP