Free Speech: Look Beyond Content (Part-II)

Padmaja Shaw,
Columnist, The Hoot 

There is also a relentless process of mergers and acquisitions in the media industry which is resulting in large corporations straddling print, television, radio and new media and consolidating further. In the latest news about such mergers the multi-national corporations are making inroads into the regional space rapidly. So far, even though the nature of ownership, working conditions of the employees and the content left much to be desired, ownership in the regional space was dispersed. Beginning with the acquisition of Asianet in Malayalam, this process is picking up pace. 

Without going into the much-debated issue of media monopolies and their implications for democracies, it is interesting to see that there have been no regulatory growls from either the government or other media entities such as the Press Council of India on these kind of issues. What role does the Competition Commission of India have in such mergers and acquisitions? This is just one instance of a substantive issue that needs more debate. Instead, the Government of India passes rules on showing smokers in movies; Justice Katju asks "Why Dev Anand?"; Kapil Sibal talks to Facebook and Google about cleaning up content; giving the corporate media a Free Speech issue on a platter to trash both the government and regulatory institutions. Having given licences to the media houses, should the government/regulatory bodies be telling the filmmakers and editors of newspapers how to do their job? Do either the government of the day or its regulatory arms inspire faith in the people that they will use their content control power only for the good of the people?

Under any political regime, censorship is a dangerous weapon to hand over to the state. Misuse is inevitable and it will most certainly be against political voices that question their wisdom. The justification for censorship always comes under the cloak of protecting people from obscenity and crime, but ends up as a weapon to be used against political opponents. Kapil Sibal's eagerness to sanitize the cyberspace to suit his finicky taste is being fought back with vigour by all hues of political and apolitical cyber citizens. The irony is that Mr. Sibal's enthusiasm, in one sweep, has legitimized the right of the worst neo-Nazi style propagandists on the net who have launched a sleazy propaganda blitz against the Gandhi family. 

The propaganda is obviously in the run up to the 2014 elections, by when they expect to set up the net-using middle-class electorate to reject the star campaigners of the Congress party. One is amazed to see journalists circulating with this glee on Facebook. One does not know how many such appreciative Facebook friends actually vote. However, by stirring up the issue, Mr. Sibal also ensured greater interest and circulation for the very material he wanted to erase. Also, people completely opposed to the virulent ideologies of some of the groups on the net have shown no hesitation to defend the right of these groups to do what they do. The battle for ideas must be won on another level, not by the police state or the nanny state. Only if the content is abetting crime or criminal behaviour should the state intervene, that too under the existing criminal laws.

All things considered, shouldn't the government and the regulatory bodies concentrate more on the structural issues in the industry rather than its symptoms in the content? The failure to regulate the structure of the industry can in itself be considered collusion by the state to facilitate predatory practices. It has a long-term impact on the functioning of the Indian democracy. Let Shahrukh Khan now smoke in peace, let Dev Anand be page one lead; but let's concentrate on what is happening to the industry first.


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