Of digital media, censorship, regulation and freedom

“Everyone has an opinion, and the guy screaming for censorship may be the next guy to have his ideas cut off”

                                                                                   -Richard King

The battle for Internet’s freedom is not new and is certainly far from over. The reason most people seem to protect this right so dearly, is because the internet has, in more ways than one, become the last bastion of true democracy. A free space where everyone has the luxury of surviving. A space where thoughts are free to be expressed, heard, absorbed or discarded. But, bit by bit, that freedom is being chipped away. Sometimes by governments, and sometimes by a tiny coterie that believes that freedom should be their right, and not the other’s, whose ideology they don’t subscribe to.

After Smriti Irani’s announcement that she might be contemplating to constitute a committee that would look into the code of ethics to be followed by digital platforms, many were extremely uncomfortable, and with good reason. Any stick to control freedom, that is handed over to the government, will be misused sooner or later. It is like the age-old ‘surveillance state’ debate. Many choose to believe that if they haven’t done something wrong, they would ideally have nothing to fear, but they fail to realise that they have nothing to fear only till there is a government in power that chooses to uphold freedom as a fundamental right. As is the nature of democracy, governments change and it is unlikely that one can predict precisely how a certain government in the future would use the stick handed to them. It is this argument I use to oppose the possession of any thought control tool in the hands of the government as an institution, and that is independent of which political party might form the government at that given point of time.

Having said that, the problem with most such crusades to uphold freedom, is that it mostly begins when firstly, the protesting party doesn’t particularly like the government in power at that moment, and, to secure freedom for ‘their people’, not uphold the basic principle of freedom. I personally got a glimpse into how such selective crusades work during a recent incident when 100 ’eminent people’ signed a letter to Smriti Irani opposing the proposal to regulate digital media. I was asked for my number by a young journalist to be added in this group, to deliberate the way forward. I was never included and was later informed by the same gentleman that while some did want OpIndia’s representation there, some didn’t.

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The result was evident. The letter had no representation of the right leaning portals. Essentially, an important issue was reduced to a “anti Modi brigade writes to Smriti Irani” trope because the mafia like, illiberal mentality of the left prevents them from engaging with anyone who doesn’t conform to their worldview. To be fair, some reached out to me after this information was made public with wildly cock and bull stories. One said, “the WhatsApp group was open and anyone could just click on an invite link and join”. I didn’t get any link. The very people who talk about democratization ganged up to keep inconvenient voices out.

No cause can be championed when hypocrisy is used as a shield from behind the veils of virtue. OpIndia was excluded because its ideological leaning didn’t bode well with the harbingers of neutrality and that is something that mustn’t be lost sight of. Most of the signatories have no right to speak of freedom when they were celebrating the PostCard.news editor being arrested and thrown in jail for what he had written. And if one must celebrate his arrest, one must also demand that members of the coterie be arrested for similar crimes. That the latter didn’t happen, makes me believe that the moment a government of their choosing comes to power, these beacons of virtue will be more than happy to allow regulation that can then be used to shut down opposing voices.

When the ‘fake news’ debate was raging, I recall Pratik Sinha from Alt News harping about how “fake news” is generated by the “right wing” and how a veteran journalist like Pallavi Ghosh can’t be held accountable for her communally charged fake news of a woman getting gang raped for eating beef, because it didn’t get too many retweets. With such asinine and reprehensible reasoning, these elements, this ilk, cannot be trusted to debate rationally and arrive at an amiable and acceptable solution to uphold freedom.

The very coterie that today talks of freedom to oppose and freedom to offend have shut out every right leaning voice as “fake news”. Most of the times, they provide no proof but bark off platitudes to create a narrative against the ‘unwashed masses’ encroaching upon an industry that had been monopolised by homogeneously left voices for the longest time. It is thus amusing that they would scream so shrill when Smriti Irani makes a suggestion. Evidently, arrests of opposing voices is more acceptable to them than an ideologically different government giving them suggestions.

This incident points towards a deeper malaise and while I don’t support any government’s attempts to regulate or control the internet and its portals, I will put forth my own reasons for the same without subscribing to the points forwarded by the ‘100 signatories’ as evidently, their reasons and crusade (at least for some of them who wanted OpInda excluded) are coloured by political leanings and ideological motivations.

Digital platforms have given writers an extremely freeing experience and is full of citizen’s journalists who write because they want the truth, or their version of it, to be known to the readers without censorship of any kind. Such platforms have grown by leaps and bounds influencing national discourse, political discourse and even voting patter, albeit, to a marginal level. One has to understand that digital platforms and citizen journalists don’t have the right or the status of conventional journalists. So I, for example, can’t have a ‘Press’ sticker stuck on the back of my car and report incidents like journalists can. And when I don’t have the rights of the press, it is unthinkable the ethics I must follow, be governed by representatives of the PCI and NBA (as a part of the committee), as proposed by the minister.

I speak as the Editor of OpIndia when I say that our platform itself believes that majority media houses have lost their ethical code. We have over 300 articles filed under “Media lies”. To ask us then, to conform to the ethical standards set by the very institution we oppose is a monstrosity at myriad levels.

One has to also be honest about the nature of digital portals. If you pierce the veils of neutrality, one realises that every digital portal has a pronounced ideological slant that in turn percolates into a political preference. I have no qualms in accepting that we have an ideologically right slant and that makes us more predisposed to supporting BJP. I also have no qualms in stating that other portals like The Wire, Scroll, Caravan, HuffPost, NewsLaundry, TheNewsMinute, The Print, Alt News etc have a left leaning and are thus more predisposed to supporting Congress or the Left over BJP. These are truths one must accept in order to have a rational debate on the subject.

With such ideological slant and by default, political preferences, any government with a regulation stick that can easily turn into a tool of censorship is dangerous. We saw the repercussions with the draconian 66A law and how it was used to shut down voices that opposed the Congress government. What is to say that if the digital platform is regularised today, it won’t be censored tomorrow? I don’t yet doubt that the Minister has no intention of imposing censorship, but is there a possibility that it could happen if not today then sometime in the future? Yes.

To support or oppose tools in the hand of the government depending on which political party is in power is an exceptionally narrow word view that doesn’t help anyone. Having said that, with the growing power of digital platforms to influence discourse and the kind of blind money which is being pumped into this industry even by means of FDI (Omidyar, for example), I do believe regulations to the extent of making financial interests and funding open for scrutiny is essential. Any regulation beyond the financial realm, that delves into Editorial content will eventually become draconian.

The moment you censor thoughts, you kill the soul of a man and the spirit of the writer. I oppose any regulation that may just as easily morph into tools of censorship. The tragic comedy here is that I would have signed that letter if I wasn’t kept out because of my political leaning and ideology by the harbingers of neutrality.

Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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