Free Speech & Violent Extremism: Special Rapporteur on Terrorism Weighs in

Written by Nakul Nayak

Yesterday, the Human Rights Council came out with an advance unedited version of a report (A/HRC/31/65) of the Special Rapporteur on protection of human rights while countering terrorism. This report in particular deals with protecting human rights while preventing and countering violent extremism. The Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, has made some interesting remarks on extremist speech and its position in the hierarchy of protected and unprotected speech.

First, it should be noted that the Report tries to grapple with and distinguish between the commonly substituted terms “extremism” and “terrorism”. Noting that violent extremism lacks a consistent definition across countries and in some instances any definition at all, the Report goes on to liken it to terrorism. He also acknowledges the lack of understanding of the “radicalization process”, whereby innocent individuals become violent extremists. While the report does not suggest an approach to defining either term, it briefly contrasts the definitions laid down in various countries. However, there does seem to be some consensus on the ambit of violent extremism being broader than terrorism and consisting a range of subversive activities.

The important section of the Report, from the perspective of free speech, deals with incitement to violent extremism and efforts to counter it. The Report cites UN Resolution 1624(2005) that calls for the need to adopt legislative measures as effective means of addressing incitement to terrorism. However, the Report insists on the existence of “serious human rights concerns linked to the criminalization of incitement, in particular around freedom of expression and the right to privacy.[1] The Report then goes on to quote the UN Secretary General and the Special Rapporteur on Free Expression laying down various safeguards to laws criminalizing incitement. In particular, these laws must prosecute incitement that is directly related to terrorism, has the intention and effect of promoting terrorism, and includes judicial recourse, among other things.[2]

This gives us an opporutnity to discuss the standards of free speech restrictions in India. While the Supreme Court has expressly imported the American speech-protective standard of incitement to imminent lawless action in Arup Bhuyan, confusion still persists over the applicable standard in any justifying any restriction to free speech. The Supreme Court’s outdated ‘tendency’ test that does not require an intimate connection between speech and action still finds place in today’s law reports. This is evident from the celebrated case of Shreya Singhal. After a lengthy analysis of the public order jurisprudence in India and advocating for a direct connection between speech and public disorder, Justice Nariman muddies the water by examining section 66A of the IT Act under the ‘tendency’ test. Some coherence in incitement standards is needed.

The next pertinent segment of the Report dealt specifically with the impact of State measures on the restriction of expression, especially online content. Interestingly, the Report suggests that “Governments should counter ideas they disagree with, but should not seek to prevent non-violent ideas and opinions from being discussed.[3] This brings to mind the recent proposal of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) seeking to set up a National Media Analytics Centre (NMAC) to counter negative online narratives through press releases, briefings, and conferences. While nothing concrete has come out, with the proposal still in the pipelines, safeguards must be implemented to assuage chilling effect and privacy concerns. It may be noted here that the Report’s remarks are limited to countering speech that form an indispensible part of the “radicalization process”. However, the NMAC covers negative content across the online spectrum, with its only marker being the “intensity or standing of the post”.

An important paragraph of the report- perhaps the gist of the free speech perspective in the combat of violent extremism- is the visible unease in determining the position of extremist speech glorifying and advocating terrorism. The Report notes the Human Rights Committee’s stand that terms such as “glorifying” terrorism must be clearly defined to avoid unnecessary incursions on free speech. At the same time, the “Secretary General has deprecated the ‘troubling trend’ of criminalizing glorification of terrorism, considering it to be an inappropriate restriction on expression.[4]

These propositions are in stark contrast to India’s terror legislation, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. Section 13 punishes anyone who “advocates, … advises … the commission of any unlawful activity …” An unlawful activity has been defined in section 2(o) to include speech acts that

  • supports a claim of “secession of a part of the territory of India from the Union” or,
  • which disclaims, questions … the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” or,
  • rather draconically, “which causes … disaffection against India.

It will also be noted that all three offences are content-based restrictions on free speech i.e. limitations based purely on the subjects that the words deal in. Textually, these laws do not necessarily require an examination of the intent of the speaker, the impact of the words on the audience, or indeed the context in which the words are used.

Finally, the Report notes the views of the Special Rapporteur on Free Expression on hate speech and characterizing most efforts to counter them as “misguided”. However, the Report also “recognizes the importance of not letting hate speech go unchecked …” In one sense, the Special Rapporteur expressly rejects American First Amendment jurisprudence, which does not acknowledge hate speech as a permissible restriction to free speech. At the same time, the Report’s insistence that “the underlying causes should also be addressed” instead of being satisfied with mere prosecutions is a policy aspiration that needs serious thought in India.

This Report on violent extremism (as distinct from terrorism) is much-needed and timely. The strong human rights concerns espoused, with its attendant importance attached to a context-driven approach in prosecuting speech acts, are a sobering reminder about the many inadequacies of Indian terror law and its respect for fundamental rights.

Nakul Nayak was a Fellow at the Centre for Communication Governance from 2015-16.

[1] Para 24.

[2] Para 24.

[3] Para 38.

[4] Para 39.

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