Free speech is the enemy of authoritarian regimes across the world. In colonised India, the media was totally controlled by the government. The monopoly still exists – through concentration of media ownership and licence raj. The programme code under the Cable Television Act is implicit censorship only.
The blackout order against NDTV, recent cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh and increasing activities of internet trolls that even drag the Prime Minister of India into the controversy portend a grim future for free speech.
Now the censorship has shifted its focus from conventional newspapers and TV channels to the internet. India has increasingly earned the dubious honour of blocking the internet. It has shut down the internet more than 42 times in different parts of the country during the last eight months, according to a report published by the Human Rights Watch.
The government has argued in the past that restricting access to the internet is sometimes necessary to prevent social media rumours from fueling violence. Conflict-ridden Kashmir, for example, has experienced more than 35 shutdowns in last the five years.
In many States too, the aggressive internet regulating policy remains unchanged. The prevention of internet access to the public was limited during the UPA rule, but it now looks like the limit has gone.
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s nullification of Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act that made posting ‘offensive’ comments on the social media a crime punishable by jail, observations of various freedom groups indicate that the tendency of the authorities to curb access to the internet is increasing.
A Norm Now
Questions of surveillance and censorship continue to fuel fierce argument in India. There are around 200 million internet users in south Asian nations, the third highest in the world, although telecommunications infrastructure remains inadequate.
In a bid to make online censorship permanent, the Ministry of Communications, on August 7, issued and also notified in the official gazette, rules for shutting of telecom services – and by extension, the shutting down of internet services in India.
The notification for the rules is issued under the Telegraph Act. There was no public consultation regarding these rules. The views of civil society and industry ought to have been taken before framing such rules.
The freedom of speech activists question how citizens will assess whether the decision to issue internet shutdowns was necessary and proportionate, even if it has been issued by the Central or State Home Secretary? The government remains silent on it.
The internet has revolutionised media and created new media platforms. The government of India has not updated the media regulatory mechanism in sync with these big changes.
The Press Council of India (PCI) is governed by an archaic Press Council of India Act, 1978, which is a renewed version of the Press Council of India Act, 1965, and it regulates only the print media. Electronic media is out of its jurisdiction, but the PCI claims its jurisdiction over internet contents as they are basically in written form.
Notwithstanding PCI’s repeated recommendations to the government to bring the electronic media under its purview, the Central government for reasons best known to it, has not taken any initiative to do that.
It is argued that the government has violated a fundamental right – right to equality guaranteed under Article 14-18 of the Constitution — by regulating one form of media and letting another form go unregulated.
Since the PCI, as upholder of freedom of the press, regulates the internet, it should urgently react to the government notification of internet shutdown rules, which is tantamount to outright media censorship. We, however, are not aware of any such reaction of the PCI.
Internet-based media platforms have emerged as a powerful mass media extensively used by general people. Print, electronic and other conventional media hitherto was controlled by a handful of media barons and politicians.
It is true that terrorists, dacoits, drug traffickers, killers and all other criminals also take advantage of internet-based media platforms. But conventional media is also used by criminals, politicians and others for fulfiling their interests.
Taming Social Media
In India, paid news is one of the vivid examples of such a misuse of media. In Rwanda’s genocide, some conventional media abetted the pogrom led by majoritarian forces.
The role of social and other media platforms in some of the recent people’s uprisings like the Arab spring, Anna Hazare movement against corruption and the recent ‘not in my name’ in India has sent shock waves to the autocratic regimes across the world. So the rightist forces and reactionary regimes are hell-bent on taming this platform by engaging internet media-savvy propaganda army.
Stephen K Bannon, former Whitehouse chief strategist and executive chairman of rightist Breitbart News, has doubled his arsenals against Islam, immigration and trade and propagating racist policy. Swati Chaturvedi in her book, I am A Troll: Inside the Secret World of BJP’s digital Army, has exposed the aggressive approach on internet-based media platforms of the ruling political forces in India.
Now as part of a concerted effort to restrict access to the internet and such media platforms, the ruling class has formulated internet regulations. DNS filtering and imposing conditions in licensing on the service providers are active strategy and government policy to block or regulate access to internet contents.
In the absence of resistance against implicit regulatory schemes, the government has now planned to impose direct restrictions on internet access. The media fraternity and the citizen users of internet-based media should mobilise all the platforms against such obnoxious designs.