By MOSES MANOHARAN
The notion of freedom of the Press is just that – a notion. There is no place on earth where such a freedom exists in its purity. The social media has made that notion a greater threat to the Old Order and a dangerous concept for the young. For the Shiv Sena and their ilk, who brook no criticism within their fold or without, Facebook, blogging, Twitter are all new aspects of an old dilemma: how to crush dissent. Even an innocuous Facebook entry led to the arrest of two young women who had objected to the shutdown of Mumbai for Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s funeral. Another youth was picked up by police for daring to lash out on Facebook against Raj Thackeray, the head of a breakaway faction of the Sena.
The world is being increasingly driven towards less tolerance of dissent, that, among others have been expressed from iconic heights by Julian Assange, Ai Weiwei and our own Aseem Trivedi. Trivedi exemplifies to an extent a presumption among Indian youth that pure freedoms of speech and expression thrive in the West. In fact, Trivedi shared this belief in a panel discussion on television on being released after his arrest on a charge of sedition for drawing cartoons ridiculing Parliament and the National Emblem. One cartoon showed Parliament building as a toilet, while in another, he replaced the three lions in the national emblem with wolves dripping blood. Trivedi’s supporters argued sedition was too serious a charge.
In 1984, following Operation Bluestar, I was summoned by then Information and Broadcasting Minister HKL Bhagat to explain why I should not be charged with sedition for my reporting of troops storming a complex in Amritsar housing the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, to stamp out an insurrection. My reporting was considered sympathetic to the uprising. I pointed out that it was all heavily sourced and not contradicted, and that was that. As a journalist representing Reuters, my credentials were never doubted by the government.
Trivedi’s supporters believe the government is prejudiced as he is a part of the anti corruption crusade of the Anna Hazare movement, whose main target is the ruling Congress Party.
But there is no media Utopia where any subject can be lampooned, any sensitivity disregarded.
Interestingly, France has some of the toughest libel and privacy laws. Where personal privacy is an important aspect of culture and consequent media controls in the West, in the East, the stated objective of such regulations is to preserve harmony in society, a prized Confucian ideal. From China to Indonesia to Singapore, the controls are invoked for a wide range of offences, which include disturbing communal peace, hurting religious or cultural sensibilities, often just the threat of disrupting status quo.
In the Trivedi case, the central issue is whether symbols of the state can be ridiculed and what effect it would have on its citizens. Trivedi’s backers may want to educate him on how he lives under the protection of the very state whose authority he seeks to undermine. It provides him the security to live and practice his profession, and a host of amenities he appears to take for granted. The charge of sedition was ill conceived and the government must take blame for over-reacting and spoiling their own case. But the issue of media freedom is too critical a function of democracy and the state to have been put to the test by this ridiculous case. The use of SMS to fan fear and animosity in August caused thousands of north-easterners studying or working in other parts of India to flee for home. The government reacted by curbing the number of SMSes that could be sent from a mobile phone in a day rather than use the same medium to counter the rumours and rebuild trust among the fearful.
It may be argued that the case of the two girls and the young man from Palghar are the natural consequence of the government either buckling to violators of the law or the authorities determined to find out how far the envelope can be pushed to crush dissent.
The other possibility is that the government has, in the absence of clear directives on what constitutes threats to society, come to exercise authority in an arbitrary way, failing to discriminate between the frivolous and the criminal. It will serve to only curb those outside the ambit of traditional media, from whistle-blowers to activists promoting genuine causes and grievances of society.
Perhaps the authorities are fearful of modern ways of dissemination of views and news, flailing out in despair at what they cannot understand or attempt to curb by using old methods of censorship. In the end, even in modern times, it is neither technology nor age that determines the quality of governance. In many of the cases where the government has tackled criticism through the social media, it has overreached or overlooked the often legitimate grievance being expressed.
It is tolerance and clear, unambiguous, yet liberal legislation that will embellish India’s credentials as a modern 21st century nation that can march with the times, and listen to the voices of dissent. Otherwise, it would end up just shooting the messenger.
(The author, formerly of Reuters, is CEO, TV 99)