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A documentary banned in India, but conversation about women's safety continues

On 16 December 2014, Indian women participate in a vigil in New Delhi at the bus stop where Jyoti Singh had boarded the bus two years earlier
On 16 December 2014, Indian women participate in a vigil in New Delhi at the bus stop where Jyoti Singh had boarded the bus two years earlier

AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal

India does not want to have a public discussion about rape, says Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). His comment is in response to the Indian government banning the documentary "India's Daughter", which tells the story of a 23-year-old woman who was brutally gang raped on a bus in 2012 and died later from her injuries. The film was due to air in India and in the United Kingdom on 8 March 2015, International Women's Day. India has argued that the documentary encourages and incites violence against women. Dietz questions this, noting India's history of censorship "ostensibly in the name of quelling potential civil unrest."

The banning of the film is another example of the chilling climate of censorship in India, PEN International concurs. Nevertheless, if the filmmakers wanted to inspire a conversation about rape and attitudes about women in India, the ban may have inadvertently aided their cause. As Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center, explains, "The Indian government's attempt to suppress this film has precisely backfired, provoking an even broader domestic and global debate on the complex questions it raises."

Here is how the story has unfolded so far.

16 December 2012:
Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old aspiring medical intern, was travelling on a private bus in South Delhi with a male friend. According to media reports, they had seen a film together. There were six others in the bus, including the driver, all of whom raped the woman, brutally assaulted her and beat her friend with an iron rod.

29 December 2012: Thirteen days after the assault, the woman is transferred from Delhi to a hospital in Singapore for emergency treatment, but dies two days later from her severe injuries.

Late 2012 and early 2013: Public protests against the state and central governments for failing to provide adequate security for women take place in New Delhi and other cities. Security forces use water cannons to quell the protest, an indication of the government's discontent over the debate.

Early March 2015: The documentary "India's Daughter", which includes extensive footage and interviews with Jyoti Singh's family, the rapists and their defense lawyers, is scheduled to air on the Indian channel NDTV and BBC in the United Kingdom. Projected date, 8 March 2015, International Women's Day.

1 March: The filmmakers reveal that they had interviewed one of Jyoti Singh's rapists in prison before he was hanged. The news is picked up by Indian media outlets soon afterwards, and derogatory statements against women made by the convict in the film create public outcry.

3 March: The Indian government imposes a ban on the film being aired domestically and asks YouTube to not make the documentary available online inside the country.

"The reasons vary depending on which official deigns to hold forth on the matter, but the underlying motive, at least from here, looks like concern for India's international image as a place where rape is too taboo a subject to be discussed frankly and openly. Disappointing for a country that claims to be the world's most populous democracy, but CPJ research shows that outright anti-media policies are on the rise under the Modi government."
Bob Dietz, CPJ.

4 March: In response to the ban, the BBC decides to air the documentary in the UK, four days ahead of the originally scheduled date of 8 March.

5 March: India is angered with the BBC move and the Indian Home Minister promises an investigation into whether "norms have been violated" in the filming of the documentary.

On Twitter and Facebook, those opposing the documentary tweet #banBBC - the hashtag is mentioned more than 13,000 times in 24 hours. A few others use the hashtags #boycottbbc, #banbbcasap and #banbbcinIndia.

5 March: YouTube reportedly complies with the request to block the documentary inside India. However, a complete block is near impossible to achieve as viewers find other ways to access the film online.

6 March: The Editors Guild of India appeals to the government to revoke the ban, saying the move was "wholly unwarranted".

8 March: NDTV responds to the ban with an hour-long on-air protest in the slot in which it had intended to broadcast "India's Daughter". It displays a largely blank screen with the title of the film and text describing reactions to the film and its ban.

8 March: Indian activist Ketan Dixit uses borrowed equipment from the Stop Acid Attacks (SAA) movement and bedsheets to screen the film to about 60 people at a village near the northern city of Agra.
The villagers welcome the screening of the documentary, terming it an 'eye opener'.

"This is the beginning of a series of protests . . . We will also lodge a protest petition online against this ban."
Activist Ketan Dixit, speaking to a reporter on 9 March

9 March: Ketan Dixit is quoted as saying he is ready to "face any action that was initiated". He is apprehended by the police, who also confiscate the audiovisual equipment used to screen the film.

There are concerns the police may implement a general crackdown against social activists. "Since Ketan screened this documentary, police are pressuring everyone who is associated with him," says the SAA, appealing for support from civil society.

10 March: A Delhi court refuses to accept an urgent public hearing request. The law students who submit the request say the ban is a clear violation of their fundamental rights under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

The issue continues to attract media attention; the 9 March US premiere of the film in New York was attended by Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep and other celebrities.

Filmmaker Lesley Udwin is hopeful that the ban will soon be lifted in India, "as the courts are not puppets of the government." She had earlier called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "deal with the unceremonious silencing of the film".

"Though it is perfectly fair to debate the merits of the film and to sound an alarm over how its content may be misconstrued, members of the public who choose to view the film should be free to do so and form their own opinions on the vital issues it raises. If people disagree with the message of the film, they can refute it or even condemn it, but not insist that it be banned."
Suzanne Nossel, PEN American Center

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