PAGES

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

‘Big brother’ wants to watch!

“The government’s stand on the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ may be termed as ambivalent and dependent on political considerations from time to time. Thus while functionaries of the government joined the votaries of ‘free speech’ in defending M. F. Hussain’s ‘freedom of expression’ to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, the ruling party at the centre had no hesitation in forestalling the publication of “The Red Sari”, Spanish writer, Javier Moro's biography of Sonia Gandhi. Isn’t Sonia more sacred than Bharat Mata, Sarawati or Sita?”

Internet as an open democratic medium has earned the wrath of both the politicians and media persons for obvious reasons. If the politicians hated it because it does not respect their ‘more equal’ status, it has become bête noir for the media persons as it did away with their monopoly over dissemination of news. Now they not only have competition but the easily accessed, 24/7 medium subjected their conduct to relentless scrutiny.

'Big Brother' wants to watch!’, was first  published in The Hans India of December 12, 2011.
................................................................................................................

Kapil Sibal has certainly set the cat among the pigeons when he demanded executives of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to screen content posted on social networking sites. The Information Technology (Electronic Service Delivery) Rules, 2011, the government notified earlier this year in April, are considered to be the most stringent compared to those in any democratic country. The rules require ‘the intermediaries’ (like Facebook, Google, Orkut etc) that provide a platform to users to post comments and create their own content to remove ‘offensive’ content based on an e-mailed complaint from an aggrieved person.

The immediate provocation for Kapil Sibal’s demand appears to be a cartoon posted on Facebook lampooning Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Sibal termed it ‘unacceptable.’ In a party that lays great store by loyalty to ‘the’ family, Kapil Sibal, as Information Technology Minister cannot be seen to be deficient. In addition to loyalty Sibal has another reason to be chagrined with the internet, especially the role played by Facebook and Twitter in bringing the government to heel in the recent Indians Against Corruption (IAC) movement.

The government’s stand on the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ may be termed as ambivalent and dependent on political considerations from time to time. Thus while functionaries of the government joined the votaries of ‘free speech’ in defending M. F. Hussain’s ‘freedom of expression’ to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, the ruling party at the centre had no hesitation in forestalling the publication of The Red Sari”, Spanish writer Javier Moro's biography of Sonia Gandhi. Isn’t Sonia more sacred than Bharat Mata, Sarawati or Sita?

Indian politicians, who strongly believe in the dictum ‘some animals are more equal than others’, have rarely taken kindly to criticism. They certainly could do with eulogy, thank you. Like Kapil Sibal in 2011, in 1987, M. G. Ramachandran’s government wanted to teach a lesson to irreverent journalists. S. M. Balasubramanian the editor of ‘Ananda Vikatan’ was summoned by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly on April 4, 1987 to tender an apology for a cartoon the magazine published in its issue dated March 29, 1987. The Editor refused to do so because he was not given an opportunity to explain his stand in the matter. The assembly passed a motion by voice vote to award three months rigorous imprisonment to Balasubramanian. The sentence elicited strong reactions from the press and other quarters. Known for hunting with the hound and running with the hare, the Congress party played a curious role in the affair. After supporting the motion in the state assembly, its Home Minister at the centre, P. Chidambaram wished to defuse the crisis by offering an apology to the assembly - on behalf of Balasubramanian! The issue was resolved after M. G. Ramachandran appealed to the assembly to rescind the sentence. Balasubramanian was released after spending two nights in prison.

A similar drama was enacted in Andhra Pradesh during the reign of N. T. Rama Rao as Chief Minister. In 1985 the state legislative Council summoned Ramoji Rao, Editor of ‘Eenaadu’ over the caption of an editorial the paper published criticizing a ruckus in the Council. Ramoji Rao approached the Supreme Court for redress and the issue would have blown into a legislature-judiciary spat. N. T. Rama Rao, already unhappy with the Council’s intransigence over legislative business, resolved the crisis by abolishing the Council.

Internet as an open democratic medium has earned the wrath of both the politicians and media persons for obvious reasons. If the politicians hated it because it does not respect their ‘more equal’ status, it has become bete noir for the media persons as it did away with their monopoly over dissemination of news. Now they not only have competition but the easily accessed, 24/7 medium subjected their conduct to relentless scrutiny.

Much as Kapil Sibal and his government would wish to govern the internet to ensure ordinary folk show due respect to the politicians at all times, it is easier said than done. There are an estimated 100 million netizens in India. We are the third most populous netizen country in the world after China and the US. But how does the Indian government police content posted outside India? If every article, cartoon, video and comment posted on the internet had to be screened and cleared before publishing, the process would simply crash the system. 

Secondly, regulating information flow had never worked. The erstwhile Soviet Union did It for 70 years deluding itself that the ‘worker’s paradise’ was really popular with the masses. Nearer home, though Indira Gandhi bowed to international pressure and ended the infamous emergency in 1977, she called for elections with the smug satisfaction that her regime was popular, which was the impression fed to her by her own propaganda machinery. For it was she who disbanded four private news agencies and created her hand-maiden Samachar!

TAIL PIECE: There are many ‘iron curtain’ jokes but this one on the popularity of Russia’s mouth piece PRAVDA, though seemingly apocryphal, has a tell-tale lesson for the Kapil Sibal’s of this world: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a citizen of Moscow went to his favourite coffee shop and asked a waiter to bring him a cup of the brew and the day’s PRAVDA. The waiter politely informed him, ‘Sir, I will bring you your coffee, but I am afraid I can’t bring PRAVDA because it was closed down.’ 

As the waiter deposited his coffee cup, the man asked him again to bring the day’s PRAVDA. The waiter politely replied again that the PRAVDA was closed down. However the man continued to ask for PRAVDA every five minutes. Finally, the exasperated waiter lost his cool and shouted, ‘How many times do I have to tell you Sir that PRAVDA was closed down?’ The man replied with obvious relish, ‘I want to hear it again and again and again!’ 


No comments:

Post a Comment