Social media censorship, and the silence of the lambs
by Venky Vembu
When details emerged earlier this week of the UPA government’s ham-handed attempt at blocking the Twitter handles of at least two mainstream journalists, a few social media vigilantes — and at least one completely apolitical entrepreneur — the most ambivalent response to what was an egregious instance of social media censorship came, ironically, from other mainstream media stars.
While appearing, outwardly, to be opposed to censorship, some of them sought circuitously to justify the clampdowns in the name of reining in “hate speech”. Such “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other” waffling and the resort to false equivalences on their part seemed calculated only to use their media megaphone to deflect criticism away from the government’s sneaky attempt at cracking down on social media criticism under the cloak of protecting “national security”.
The censorship action – and the government’s resort to underhand methods to silence criticism (the executive order to Internet Service Providers was, as analyst B Raman points out, not on an official letterhead, evidently to give the government plausible deniability) – was particularly vile. But no less shameful is the defence of the feckless government’s action by people in the mainstream media, who ought to know the many levers that governments deploy in order to silence dissent.
It’s a sad day when mainstream media players, who (for all the incendiary – and unjustifiable- flak they get at a personal level on social media platforms) ought to be uncompromising in the defence of free speech, lend themselves to the partisan project of legitimising censorship.
Taken together with all the other recent instances of the government selectively targeting anyone who speaks out against corruption – the latest being Manish Sisodia, whose NGO is being investigated for fund use, strikingly after his high-profile association with the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement – it establishes a patter of governmental behaviour that is disquieting.
The alacrity with which the government goes after is critics, while protecting those against whom grave allegations of corruption have been levelled, tells its own story. For media players to not see this pattern or criticise the government amounts to one level of compromise, an inability or unwillingness to speak truth to power; for them to actively defend the government’s actions, and join it in pillorying the government’s critics, is rather more extreme.
The online chatter about #Emergency2012 that the latest social media crackdown gave rise to is a trifle hyperbolic. Anyone who lived through the Emergency knows that during the 1975-77 period, civil liberties were curtailed to much more extreme limits. Journalists and others were actually jailed then, which isn’t the case today. Yet, there is one eerie echo of the Emergency that is resonant today: the selective targeting of the government’s critics, and the capitulation of sections of the media to governmental authority.
Just one instance of the pettiness of the Indira Gandhi government, which has its parallels today, is illustrative. During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi, who ran amok during those times, went about his “forced sterilisation project”; to raise funds for this disgraceful enterprise, he had film stars and musicians organise a fund-raiser performance. Kishore Kumar, in many ways the Voice of India for a generation, declined to be part of the political project, and for his upright stance, his songs were banned from Vividh Bharati for the entire duration of the Emergency. (Shatrughan Sinha too was similarly victimised for supporting Jayaprakash Narayan.)
Likewise, sections of the media too were targeted for criticising the government’s abridgement of civil liberties and for censorship. Over 250 journalists, including Kuldip Nayar and KR Malkani, were arrested. Others pushed back against the government’s censorship by invoking satire. (Indicatively, the editor of an economic journal sneaked in a report on the “Livestock Problems in India” – that went unnoticed by the censors. The opening lines of that article were an allegory for India under Indira Gandhi: “There are at present 580 million sheep in the country.”)
Some media entities, like the Indian Express, stood up to Indira Gandhi’s excesses, and paid the price, but others surrendered too readily to authoritarianism – and the blandishments that the government offered to those who fell in line.
As was famously said of sections of the media during the Emergency, they were asked to bend; they ended up crawling.
Today, the stakes are much higher for media entities and for journalists – not always in material ways, but in several other ways. The reflexive criticism of those who speak up in defence of the government or the Congress – that they represent the #PaidMedia or have been bought over – is wildly off the mark. Yet, there is no denying that proximity to power disorients the professional compass of even some of our biggest media stars – as the audio transcripts of the Radia phone conversations (which have since been shredded) – revealed.
Nothing else can account for the circuitous justification – from some among the mainstream media – of the government’s blatantly partisan social media clampdown in the guise of defending “national security”. It’s a slippery slope that no professional journalist should go down. It reduces them to the “sheep” that Balasubramaniam parodied during the Emergency, and their pronouncements to feeble bleats that echo the government’s propaganda.
As Benjamin Franklin noted on another famous occasion: “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”