Indian film stands the test of Censorship on-demand in New Zealand

Jonathan Ayling

Jonathan Ayling

Wellington, March 23, 2022

The Kashmir Files Producer-Director Vivek Agnihotri has appealed to the New Zealand authorities regarding censorship

 

A decision by Chief Censor David Shanks to reassess the classification of The Kashmir Files, a controversial take on the Kashmir Insurgency which has recently come out of India, reveals the unavoidable pitfalls of using censorship to address complex subjects.

It appears as if the decision to delay (and possibly prevent) the film being screened in New Zealand has been driven by political activism. This is a troubling turn for free speech and the potential of ‘censorship on-demand.’

Accusations that the film flirts with historical revisionism and is little more than propaganda promoting the governing Party in India (the Bharatiya Janata Party) are relevant to all viewers. Open discussion regarding the accuracy and intent of the film should be promoted. But it is not the Censor’s role to prohibit a biased presentation of historical events or politicised material.

The Streisand Effect

The irony is that more Kiwis are aware of this film now, and its allegedly inflammatory claims, than would have been if the Censor had not moved to reclassify it. This is known as the Streisand effect and is the Achilles’ heel of censorship. Anyone who has had anything to do with children or politicians (two classes which have more in common than is often realised) can relate to this. Simply saying ‘don’t talk, don’t watch, don’t think, don’t touch’ is likely to have the very opposite result than the one desired.

The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand is concerned that this material ‘could raise anti-Muslim sentiment and potential hatred’ and has raised these concerns with the Censor. If such concerns are true, they are indeed problematic but are not best addressed through censorship. Critical thinking and a cursory knowledge of history are bound to be more effective, along with fostering the ability to disassociate the actions of one group of individuals who happened to be Muslims with another group of individuals who are also Muslims. This is how we ensure material like this doesn’t prompt Islamophobic sentiments.

A lazy response

Not only is censoring material like this unlikely to be effective at all, but it is also simply a lazy response. Counter-speech from the maligned and misrepresented community would not only present a differing perspective to a supposedly biased account, but it would also promote engagement and dialogue between communities that certainly do not only differ on this issue. Moreover, fears that this material will inflame hatred aren’t even based on Kiwis’ reactions. In India, there have been instances of chanting and aggression in theatres showing the movie. But is it not possible that the emotion an audience in New Zealand will have to this film (even amongst our Kiwi-Indian population) is going to be different than those who are more directly affected by the conflict?

It is important to note that, regardless of the treatment of the subject matter in The Kashmir Files, mass murders of Hindus did objectively occur during the Kashmir Insurgency.

An attempt to safeguard cohesion by censoring this film therefore could play to many Kiwi-Hindus as a form of genocide denial. Does this sound like a recipe for better harmony? There is undoubtedly a counter perspective to this, and rather than lobbying for censorship the Muslim community should enjoy and employ their own free speech rights to counter what they view as misinformation.

Shanks has not said how long it will take to reassess the classification of the film, which is surprising given the fact that the Censor’s job is simply to assess material in light of predetermined criteria, not to consult extensively. How is this not a straightforward process?

Shanks must not turn his role into one which is open to lobbying and political advocacy. Controlling uncomfortable material we don’t like may seem like a win today, but tomorrow a bigger crowd will come lobbying against us, and that’s when we’ll wish we had preserved free speech.

Jonathan Ayling is the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union based in Wellington.

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