‘Freedom of expression and the courage to express oneself go hand in hand’ – an interview with John Dayal

Indian human rights activist, senior journalist and former president of the All India Catholic Union John Dayal is this year’s winner of the prestigious annual Louis Careno Award for Excellence in Journalism, awarded to an individual or institution for their outstanding contribution to the press by the Indian Catholic Press Association (ICPA). Dayal has spent over four decades as a champion of minority rights and the right to freedom of religion or belief in India and is a household name within the Indian Christian community.

The award will be conferred by the ICPA on 10 December, Human Rights Day, which follows International Human Rights Defenders Day, during the 27th National Convention of Christian Journalists in Chennai. The ICPA described Dayal as “a prophet of our times who is among India’s foremost voices against human rights violations, particularly on the persecution of religious minorities.”

Last month, CSW spoke to Dayal about his early years as a journalist, the state of freedom of religion and belief in India today, role of the press and more.

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What having an opinion can cost you in India

“Hate has won, the artist has lost…,” Indian stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui tweeted hours after his Bengaluru show was cancelled. It marked at least the 12th time Mr Faruqui’s show had been cancelled after threats to the venue and the audience. Earlier this year, the 29-year-old Muslim artist spent a month in jail for allegedly joking about Hindu deities, an accusation that the police didn’t have any evidence for. That’s what a ‘joke’ can cost you in India today. 

Or rather, in one of the two Indias that stand-up comedian Vir Das described in his Emmy-winning monologue which exposed the blatant hypocrisy prevalent in the country, including in relation to the plight of religious minorities, farmers, women and Dalits. The video went viral on social media, and immediately received a flurry of reactions, with right-wing activists calling for his arrest. 

One of the tweets issued in response to Vir Das’ monologue
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Derribando el “muro del miedo” de Cuba

Ningún derecho humano fundamental existe aisladamente. Hay superposiciones y enlaces significativos entre todos los derechos humanos, por ejemplo, los relacionados con la libertad de religión o creencia (LdRC), la libertad de expresión, y la libertad de asamblea. Estos tres derechos se ubican juntos en los Artículos 18, 19 y 20 de la Declaración Universal de Derechos Humanos de las Naciones Unidas.

Durante el año pasado, y sobre todo en meses recientes, estos derechos relacionados entre sí han sido crecientemente atacados en Cuba, durante manifestaciones pacíficas de miembros de la sociedad civil independiente, como artistas y periodistas que además se identifican con una religión o creencia en particular. Estos grupos se mantiene protestando de diferentes maneras hasta el día de hoy, solicitando reformas legales y políticas, sobre todo en contra del Decreto Legal 370 y el Decreto Legal 349.

El Decreto Legal 349 entró en vigor en el 2018 y otorgó al gobierno control extensivo sobre toda forma de expresión artística en la isla, especificando incluso que cualquier actividad artística tendrá que ser aprobado por adelantado por el Ministerio de Cultura. Inmediatamente, muchos ciudadanos cubanos expresaron preocupaciones por que la ley esencialmente apagaría la libertad de expresión en Cuba, si solamente se permitiera la existencia del arte que haya sido aprobado por el gobierno. En el mismo año un grupo de artistas, periodistas y académicos se unieron para formar el Movimiento San Isidro para protestar de manera pacífica y creativa ante la censura oficial de la expresión artística en la isla.

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Tearing down Cuba’s ‘wall of fear’

No single fundamental human right exists in isolation. There is a significant overlap and interlinking of all rights, exemplified in the relationship between freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These three rights sit side by side in Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Over the past year, and especially in recent months, these related rights have increasingly come under attack in Cuba, as members of independent civil society including artists and journalists, some of whom identify with a particular religion or belief, have maintained calls for legal and political reform, in particular coalescing around protests of Legal Decree 370 and Legal Decree 349.

Legal Decree 349 came into force in 2018 and gave the government extensive control over all artistic expression on the island, including mandating that any artistic activity had to be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture. At the time, many Cubans expressed concern that the law would essentially stamp out freedom of expression in Cuba by only permitting the existence of government approved ‘art’. The same year a group of Cuban artists, journalists and academics came together and formed the San Isidro Movement to peacefully and creatively protest official censorship of artistic expression on the island.

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Long read: The forgotten faces and hidden history of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

The criminalisation of blasphemy has become synonymous with Pakistan.

No case highlights the fervour and frustration associated with blasphemy more than that of Asia Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), the Pakistani Christian woman who was falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010.

Throughout Bibi’s protracted legal case, the worst instincts of certain sections of Pakistani society were brought to the fore and played out in national and international media as Islamist groups staged violent demonstrations calling for her execution on multiple occasions, even after her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2018. Following a nine-year ordeal, Asia Bibi and her family were eventually taken to Canada to start a new life, but for many other victims their fate is less hopeful, and they are left languishing under long jail sentences, prolonged when cases are adjourned without  hearing.

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