Free Speech: Look Beyond Content (Part-I)

Padmaja Shaw,
Columnist, The Hoot 

The year drawing to a close should be declared the Year of Free Speech, not just in India but across the world. The world has witnessed people's movement for democratic rights on an unprecedented scale. Starting with the elections in Iran, through Tahrir Square in Egypt, to the "Occupy" movements all over the world, individuals have chosen to wrench back the initiative from the oppressive governments and predatory corporations and they have done this primarily through those genuine marketplaces of ideas: the social networking sites. A few years ago, at any conference on media, Indians could be justly self-righteous for the apparent freedom we enjoyed for free speech even as in our neighbourhood as every nation-state was still grappling with dictatorial/theocratic governments. Indian democracy may well have been an inspiration for some of the uprisings in the world. 

Then, in the last quarter of this year, two influential voices in India-- Justice Markandey Katju and Kapil Sibal--reminded us that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty", once again. They raised controversies by calling for content control of legacy media and new media. While electronic media were in the cross-wires of the debate for sometime, print media were not really given a clean chit either. The worst, of course, was that the bastion of free speech, Internet, is now openly under attack. Openly, because it has been covertly under attack for sometime now in India and elsewhere.The free speech debate has two aspects to it. One is the debate around media industries--ownership patterns including cross-media ownership, licensing, taxation, exim policy for media technologies, anti-trust issues, action against predatory market practices and so on; the other is about the manifest content on these media. 

Between these two areas of contest are the so-called stakeholders--the corporate media, the state and the citizen. When one looks at the debate on free speech, all appear to be labouring under a deep sense of moral ambiguity about the issue. Let us take the corporate media. Since the dawn of the era of liberalization in 1991, the corporate media have expanded in all sectors--newspapers, magazines, film, TV, radio, cable, net, mobile technologies--in all aspects: production, distribution and exhibition/reception/reach. The expansion was possible purely because successive governments have looked the other way when unregulated expansion was taking place, partly also because successive governments, after the lessons from the dark days of the Indian Emergency, have trodden lightly when it came to regulation of the media. The resultant opening up is something to celebrate, as the Indian media market today is one of the biggest, holding out the promise of the greatest diversity.

However, in the post-liberalization era, the entrepreneurial opportunities expanded leaving large accumulated surplus with the business houses. While the Licence Raj was pronounced dead by many a pundit, we have discovered lately that the liberalization juggernaut was rolling rapidly ahead not because of the absence of Licence Raj but because of the skimmed cream of corporate profits that was oiling its wheels. All it needed to self-perpetuate was to invest in a newspaper here, a TV station there, to manage "images" and to keep the reader/viewer enthralled through trivia. 

During the early years of expansion, when regulatory frameworks could have been put in place, especially when there was ample international experience from other democracies on cross-media ownership, licensing requirements and transparency/disclosure requirements for promoters/investors, the Government of India did not act proactively with foresight then. Such a framework could not have been devised in neutrality as specific players were not in the market then and the regulatory framework could have been applied uniformly to all. If the government comes up with regulation now, there are entrenched interests already in the market and they are bound to politicize it, saying that it is an attack on free speech to control media entities opposed to the ruling party, even when they violate other laws of the land. 

The corporate houses are happy having created a regulatory logjam. Being either subsidiaries or arms of major national/international business houses, media houses have acquired enormous clout in the political economy of the country and have learnt to use the clout to drive policy and control political fate of elected governments. Media houses are active players in pushing the liberalization agenda on behalf of their corporate bosses and advertisers. Not much unlike Fox News the Indian media houses set the agenda for national debate and can pressure the government over issues they deem important. The politicians have little choice but to fall in line if they want visibility and voice. 


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