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Certification should not be an excuse to censor: Amnesty

Mar 16, 2017

The Indian film certification board’s recent denial of theatrical release to two films because they deal with women’s sexuality and same-sex relations amounts to open censorship of artistic expression, said Amnesty International India.

New Delhi: On 24 February, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) - an administrative body which certifies films for public screening - refused to approve the Hindi film Lipstick Under My Burkha (Lipstick Waale Sapne). It said: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contentious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a sensitive touch about one particular section of society (sic).”

Four days later, the CBFC denied certification to the Malayalam film Ka Bodyscapes. “The film censor board needs to stop its moral policing of creative expression. It must accept that people are mature enough to decide the films they want to view, including those on sensitive issues,” said Aakar Patel, Executive Director at Amnesty International India.

Films in India are unfairly subjected to prior censorship. This obsolete system of pre-screening films undermines filmmakers’ right to freedom of expression, and should be dismantled.”

Alankrita Shrivastava, the Director of Lipstick Under My Burkha told Amnesty International India, “To refuse certification outright to a film because its female point of view bothers the board is archaic, regressive and an assault on women’s rights.”

Jayan Cherian, the Director of Ka Bodyscapes, said, “The Indian Cinematography Act framed by the British is based on the idea that Indians are unable to choose what is right for them to watch, so the masters should decide for them. The same patronizing colonial logic is still at work.”

Under international human rights law and standards, any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be necessary and proportionate to meeting certain legitimate aims such as public order, national security public health or morals. However the CBFC continues to impose restrictions on films based on terms and definitions which are vague, overly broad and do not conform to prescribed aims.

The CBFC is authorized to issue certification to films for public viewing under the Cinematograph Act, Cinematograph (Certification) Rules, and government-issued guidelines. These guidelines include provisions such as: “the medium of film provides clean and healthy environment”; “human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity”; “the modus operandi of criminals…are not depicted”; and “such dual meaning words as obviously cater to baser instincts are not allowed.”

Requiring films to obtain CBFC certification before public screening also creates a system of prior censorship, which violates international standards on freedom of expression.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – to which India is a state party – has said that states must “abolish censorship of cultural activities in the arts.” The UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights has recommended that states “abolish prior-censorship bodies or systems where they exist and use subsequent imposition of liability only when necessary”.

“It is absurd for the CBFC to remain a state-controlled body, open to government influence, which limits creative and artistic expression based on the views of a few individuals,” said Aakar Patel.

“The CBFC should become an independent body which only classifies films, and doesn’t censor them.”

Certification decisions taken by the CBFC can be appealed before the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, another administrative body. These decisions can also be challenged before High Courts or the Supreme Court.

In June 2016, the CBFC refused to approve the film, Haraamkhor, which dealt with the subject of child sexual abuse. The film was released only after the FCAT cleared it in December, saying that the film could be used for “furthering a social message and warning the girls to be aware of their rights”.

In June 2016, the CBFC, while reviewing the film Udta Punjab, which depicts drug abuse in Punjab, asked for 13 cuts to be made to the film, including removing all references to the state of Punjab, locations in Punjab, and the words ‘Election’, ‘MP’, ‘MLA’ and ‘Parliament’. Subsequently, the Bombay High Court cleared the film with only one cut. The Court observed that the CBFC does not have the power to censor films, and asked it to refer to the Constitution and earlier Supreme Court rulings.

The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights stated in 2013 in a report on the right to freedom of artistic expression and creation: “Decision makers, including judges, when resorting to possible limitations to artistic freedoms, should take into consideration the nature of artistic creativity (as opposed to its value or merit), as well as the right of artists to dissent, to use political, religious and economic symbols as a counter-discourse to dominant powers, and to express their own belief and world vision.”

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