How Is Comedy Central Sparking Free Speech Debate In India?

New Delhi might have temporarily lifted its 10-day broadcasting ban on Viacom Inc.’s (NYSE:VIAB) Comedy Central Tuesday, but free speech activists are still reeling.

The Indian government imposed the ban over the weekend on accusations that Comedy Central breached moral guidelines for cable channels. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting found that two of the channel’s programs, one that included a French prank show and another with a stand-up comedy act, conflicted with the 1994 Cable Television Network Rules. The ministry’s ruling, made May 17, was implemented Saturday, the same day Viacom 18 Media Ltd., a joint venture between Viacom and India’s Network 18 Group, appealed the ruling at the Delhi High Court. The decision was upheld that same day, but Viacom 18 Media filed another appeal of that decision with the high court, who announced Tuesday it would lift the ban while it examined the appeal, as long as Viacom 18 Media did not show the two offending programs.

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And Viacom 18 Media is not the only one angry about the ban. Free-speech activists are infuriated, believing that the network suspension is just the latest illustration of the government using “bureaucratic overreach” to curtail free speech. According to The Wall Street Journal, Prakash Pranesh, policy director at the Center for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based free speech advocacy group, complained about the Comedy Central ban, saying, “If that’s the standard, then a lot of what’s going on in television will have to be banned.”

The ministry’s track record shows that Pranesh is probably right. Since 2004, it has issued 180 warnings and bans, one that it used to punish Fashion 10 for airing a segment called “Chantilly Lingerie” in 2011. The ban, then, comes amid a time where the free speech debate in India is raging, with many critics complaining that the government is taking advantage of the vague framing of India’s Constitution which permits restrictions on free speech for reasons that include “defense of the sovereignty and integrity” of the country.

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The subjectivity of what is considered decent and moral is where problems arise. While some argue that the bar is set too high, others counter that it is too low. According to R.K. Singh, joint secretary for broadcasting at the Information Ministry, the government has been too lenient, rather than too harsh.

A spokeswoman for Viacom 18 Media confirmed the court’s lifting of the ban but declined to comment further.

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