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Why is the Indian media building a case for internet censorship rather than against it?

August 30, 2012

Hundreds of webpages now stand blocked in India, the government has openly been appealing to internet companies to pre- or post-screen content and remove what the government wants it to remove. One Google Transparency Report after another has been revealing how the number one target of the government is criticism of politicians and government. Just imagine what would the Indian media’s response to such censorship have been like had it been hundreds of books or articles we were talking about? Instead of asking Facebook to ‘pre-screen’ our posts, had Kapil Sibal been asking for someone to pre-screen articles in the newspapers, would it not be like the Emergency?

Okay, point taken. Let us not trivialise the Emergency, which entailed jailing of dissidents and forced sterilisation and so on. But still, there’s so much internet censorship in India now that it is surprising that instead of outrage you find the Indian media actually building the case for censorship. What about hate speech, they ask. What about the trolls, Why is there so much abuse on the internet?

In the latest round of censorship the victims include mainstream media outlets -Firstpost.com, Al Jazeera, Times of India, Telegraph of UK and ABC of Australia. And yet all we are asking is: why do the trolls troll so much? I reliably know that the government also tries to have removed from the internet TV news videos, and they have also been pressing mainstream media outlets like the Times of India to do something about their comments section. The exasperated refrain, “Anyone Can Say Anything on the Internet!” is heard from politicians and journalists alike. What gives?

The Indian media favours internet censorship because it has been at the receiving end of the internet for a long time, and now that politicians have begun to face the heat, they’re only too happy to say, “Yes! Go for them trolls!”

The over-use of the word Hate suggest that there is all that to the issue. But hate can be subjective. Arnab Goswami will say the criticism of his style of news presenting is Hate, and may be there are people out there who Hate him for his style, but is expressing such hatred illegal? Is it violative of the law, of the Constitution of India? Does it cross the limits set out in the “reasonable restrictions” laid out in Article 19 (2) – which was ironically India’s First Amendment?

If yes, then why are we not seeing FIRs and police complaints and court cases? If I distribute a pamphlet that incites violence against someone, or tries to provoke a communal riot, the government will take action against me under the law. There will be IPC and CrPC and I will get to hire a lawyer and defend myself. But on the internet the government’s response is to deal with ISPs and internet companies, bypassing the safeguards for citizens laid out by the Constitution.

How does the Indian media respond to such grave violation of fundamental rights? By asking why there are no laws to regulate the internet, such as the laws to regulate print and TV news! That is a gross lie that the Indian media has been turning into perceived truth by repeating it ad nauseum. In truth, there is more regulation of the internet than of newspapers or news channels. Apart from IPC and CrPC there is the IT Act and the IT Rules. By contrast, how often has the Broadcast Code been implemented? Why is TV news reluctant to allow government regulation, and instead setting up show-piece self-regulation bodies? Why are they so upset about Justice Katju’s suggestion that news TV should come under the Press Council of India’s ambit? Is there a single editor in favour of giving more teeth to the Press Council of India?

Of course, social media is not a news organisation. Comparing the act of millions of individuals tweeting, well, whatever they like, to professional news work, is comparing apples and oranges. The Delhi editors understand as much. But even if we were to compare apples and oranges the hypocrisy of the Delhi Editorial Elite apparent in their resisting “regulation” for themselves but asking for “regulation” of the internet.

In this us-and-them binary that the Delhi Edit Elite build, they are being way too generous to themselves. We didn’t need Radia tapes to know how Responsible and Honest and Independent the Indian media is. But when two magazines did a story on the Radia tapes – after months of the entire Delhi Edit Elite knowing of their existence – the Delhi media initially chose silence. But the barrage of criticism online forced the media to stop pretending those tapes have no ‘news value’.

With such power of social media, why do we expect big media to be outraged about internet censorship? The media is on the same side as politicians on this issue!

This has a long history. When I discovered blogging in 2003, Indian media-bashing was already the in-thing. Amazingly, most of it came from journalists who took to blogging. To wash everybody’s dirty linen in public there is the media, but who will be the media’s media? Sevanti Ninan’s excellent website, The Hoot, may have been web 1.0 – run a bit like a mainstream, editor-driven outlet, but it is to be noted that the chosen medium was the internet, popularly described in those days as “new media”, because old media did not feel the need to write about its own.

Then came the others – Pradyuman Maheshwari’s “Mediaah!” which faced legal notices from the Times of India group, was a ‘newsletter’ on a blog. But media blogging soon spread like wild-fire. It was not only that blogs dedicated to media criticism came up – such as “Desi Media Bitch” – but everyone was complaining about the media on whatever blog they had. Apart from general criticism of what the media is ignoring or over-playing and how the Times of India is dumbing down news, there were very many specific instances of bloggers exposing plagiarism by well-known journalists, especially film reviewers of major papers. A “Google bomb” was created for the Times of India such that if you Googled for Times of India it asked you, “Did you mean the Slimes of India?” One of the best media blogs, called “Presstalk: Don’t Trust the Indian Media” was run anonymous by someone who was obviously an insider. Sooner or later everyone got to know it was run by the business journalist Kushan Mitra.

Born in 2005 was a blog called “War for News” which promised to track proliferating English news channels as they went on an unprecedented TRP race. “War for News” was an anonymous blog whose criticism was often personal enough to point out incorrect pronunciation of this or that word by this or that reporter. It would also publish the internal memos of channels – which can’t be objected to by a media whose scoops depend on making public inside information about others. But “War for News” was a free speech fundamentalist, refusing to moderate comments. So the comments section would be full of scandalous stuff, sometimes making remarks against women journalists that were sexual in nature.

One day, “War for News” stopped blogging and some days later deleted the entire archive.  The Delhi journo gossips soon had the behind-the-scenes story: a TV channel had put for of its IT guys on the full time job of cracking the identity of Mr “War for News”. They found out the IP address from which posts were being made and then managed to persuade the ISP to reveal the name of the customer whom this IP address was allotted to. It turned out to be a print journalist. His editor was called up and the rest is unrecorded history.

This wasn’t all. The media was to taste the power of the internet when 26/11 happened. The media erred in live broadcast of on-the-ground images, inadvertently helping the terrorists. Moreover, many viewers did not like the hyperventilating tone of the coverage, especially that of Barkha Dutt. Facebookers started joining Facebook pages in large numbers, asking for Dutt to be taken ‘off air’. News TV has till date not acknowledged that there was any problem with its 26/11 coverage, leave alone say sorry. On her part, Barkha Dutt realised social media is here to stay and decided on a policy of engagement. She is the most active celebrity journalist on Twitter.

But she isn’t alone. Unlike the blogging days, the media was forced to shed its contempt of the masses on the internet and joined Facebook and Twitter in droves. In fact, social media presence to promote their show is now a job requirement in most TV news channels. Every print publication is promoting itself in social media. They took some time to adapt. For instance, when one journalist had newly joined Twitter he tweeted about how the drama over the ‘hijack’ of a Rajdhani train by Maoists made for exciting 24×7 network television. Many replied him that it was perhaps inappropriate to describe as exciting some tense hours for hundreds of train passengers. The journalist apologised, a rare such apology. When journalists complain of online ‘hate’, they are responding to stuff like this as much as the aggressive political trolling they face on account of political differences.

While bloggers were earlier sought to be co-opted as “citizen journalists”, how do we describe the enthusiastic use of social media by the mainstream media? Are these journalists now journalist citizens?

At a social media conference in Jaipur some weeks ago, I asked Mid-Day editor Sachin Kalbag if journalists still have contempt for social media. They do, he said, and as an example he told me how his journalist friends advise him not to reply common people on Twitter. It reduces his stature, they said. I thought the business of media was all about people and connecting with people. In truth, journalists have been used to thinking of themselves as representing the people. The angst of journalists born before the internet age is like that of Rajputs in Rajasthan who rue that whilst they were the ruling elite of their land once upon a time, their stature and respect has diminished.

Social media made journalists realise they are citizens first and journalists second. That they aren’t god’s gift to humanity; that they are not above criticism and questioning. Gone are the days they could forgive each other their mistakes over a drink in the press club. The people have found a voice. They are no longer a helpless, captive audience who can be fed what a few editors like. Their chai shop banter has gained the power of the written word. Yesterday’s oral is today’s online.

This leads, obviously, also to the people being political online, of furthering their ideologies and agendas. I do not like what right-wingers say and do on the internet but I am happy that they get an outlet on the internet. It perhaps saves a few lives they’ll take on the street! The right-wingers will call a centrist media names. They will abuse anyone who questions the Gujarat violence of 2002. They will say Islamophobic things. But if the vernacular papers that incited violence during the ‘Ram Janambhoomi’ movement in 1992 and in Gujarat in 2002 have not faced any “regulation”, why is the right-wing bogey being used to “regulate” the internet? There are right-wingers on the net because there are right-wingers in the country at large. There is hate on the net because there is hate in society.

Journalists who summarily accuse social media of defamation should, one, file court cases to prove the charge of defamation and two, look up the Press Council of India’s statistics to see what is the biggest problem complainants have with our newspapers. It’s alleged defamation. Even if there is real defamation on the internet, anyone has an equal opportunity to defend yourself, to disprove the charges, to clear your name. You can make a Twitter handle as easily as I can. But what about the defamation that the mainstream media indulges in? A citizen has to do the rounds of the courts to clear his name.

A typical response of TV journalists to the growing criticism of TV news over the years, on the internet and otherwise, was that if you hate TV news why do you watch it? So when one such journalist was complaining about Twitter being full of hate – ironically on Twitter – I suggested that she should take the advice she gives about those who dislike TV news. Just as she advises them to not watch TV news, why does she not stop using Twitter? A journalist with right-wing leanings agreed with me and she replied sarcastically that the far-left and the far-right were agreeing! The self-appointed centrist (far-centrist?) stopped calling me on her shows. Doesn’t matter. My voice doesn’t depend on her.

A magazine reporter emails me to ask, “In a democratic country committed to free speech, do you see the need for a non-partisan ombudsman to monitor Twitter, blogs, websites, social media, rather in the way of an independent press commission?” Could it be that he and his magazine are toeing the government line on internet “regulation” because his magazine has faced criticism online for various things, from left and right alike?

No one should expect big media to acknowledge that it has a vested interest in the internet censorship debate. And that’s precisely citizen non-journalists should tweet and Facebook even more to speak truth to power.

(First published in Rediff.com on 28 August 2012.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 5:59 PM

    Media, the fourth estate, now has a rival. Social media has become a veritable fifth estate. All rulers hate the media as it exposes their dark side. In the past and even in the present, rulers have tried to suppress media in a variety of ways. The first three estates have always tried to control the media. Now comes a new rival. The internet. National boundaries do not limit them. All the four estates now combine to thwart this newly emerging rival, the fifth estate.

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