February 24, 2000
His Excellency Atal Behari Vajpayee
Prime Minister, Republic of India
Office of the Prime Minister
New Delhi 110 011
VIA FAX: ++91-11-301-6857
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the actions taken last week by a customs official in Calcutta to censor the February 21, 2000, edition of Time, an international weekly newsmagazine.
On February 16, customs agents at the Calcutta airport blocked the distribution of 3,000 issues of Time magazine because they contained a one-page interview with Gopal Godse, the brother of Mohandas Gandhi's assassin, Nathuram Godse. In a letter to Time's Indian distributor dated February 17, a customs officer explained that the shipment was stopped "in order to prevent the dissemination of documents containing . . . [material] which is derogatory to national prestige," and stipulated that the magazines would be released only after "blackening the page containing the 'Interview' on Mahatma Gandhi appearing on page 17." The letter, signed by Bholanath Dasgupta, assistant commissioner of customs in Calcutta, specified two grounds for censorship of the article: "(1) It is defamatory and derogatory to the Father of the Nation, and (2) It contains statements which can create communal disharmony."
Time's circulation in northeast India was disrupted by the move. Subscribers' copies were delivered five days late, and vendors received their shipments several days behind schedule. The Godse interview, meanwhile, has been available on Time magazine's Web site since February 14, and has been widely circulated. Click here to read the interview.
Sumit Dutta Majumdar, commissioner of customs in Calcutta, ordered the censorship action, citing his authority under Section 11 of the Customs Act. This is the second time that Majumdar has ordered the censorship of Time magazine. Last year, an article on a dispute affecting tiger conservation efforts--published in the magazine's September 20, 1999, edition--was also blacked out under his direction.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ is dismayed that such actions are tolerated in a country with a strong free press tradition. CPJ is particularly troubled by news from a source in New Delhi that "starting this week, senior airport customs officials all over India have been ordered by their higher-ups to check the magazine thoroughly for any objectionable stories."
We respectfully urge Your Excellency to order an immediate inquiry into these allegations to determine whether there is a systematic effort underway to censor the news, and to inform those responsible that your administration will not condone such actions.
Ann K. Cooper