Virtual Noise

Sevanti Ninan
Columnist, The Hindu 

There is no denying that 2011 has been a noisy year. It brought us Justice Markandey Katju, who alarmed, appalled and amused us in turn. To begin with, he was appointed as the Chairperson of the Press Council of India in the last quarter of the year and has been making himself heard ever since. His latest views, put out last week, relate to Internet offences. Before and after him, TV anchors have harangued and heckled and now it is Kapil Sibal's turn to utter first and ponder later. What do we get in response to his call for proactive screening of the Internet? More noise, unsurprisingly. A rising crescendo of free-spirited protests, though some of the offences can hardly be defended. 

The noise has been at one level and succeeded at hogging attention while the action has been at another level. Two murders of journalists, 14 attacks on them over the year in different parts of the country, one Home Ministry circular asking for withdrawal of advertising to newspaper, a Standing Committee draft that proposes to bring the media under the ambit of the Lokpal Bill, lots of legal notices to media outlets and some doubtless justified. And a few hundred take-down notices issued by the government to Net intermediaries. Also, a stiff fine is ordered on one of them, Yahoo, for failing to disclose identities of users.

More telling than Kapil Sibal's bombast, one would imagine, is the fact that the Rajya Sabha was told in a written reply that the Home Ministry had asked the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to "monitor" Facebook and Twitter. Has it complied? If yes, how precisely? Last week, there was more action: an amendment to the Cable Act, 1995 got passed in the Lok Sabha. It requires cable operators to transmit all channels in encrypted form and generally attempts to rein in the sector in various ways.

The old Act authorized the seizure of the cable operator's equipment if he/she violated provisions of the Act and limited the period of seizure to 10 days. The amendment says the seizure can be extended by an order of the district judge and there is no limitation on the period of seizure. The pattern since 1995 has been that the authorized government functionaries seldom used the powers of the Act. If that changes, the increased powers could be worrying. 

Between the noise and the actions we have a public sphere increasingly open to both state interventions as well as cyber excesses. The same year that saw social media trigger the Arab Spring also saw digital media being employed to spread the locations of the London riots. Who is to rein whom? When does freedom become licence? There will be more noise in the coming year as we thrash these issues out. Since self-regulation is the debate of the season, can it apply more effectively to cyberspace? There are no media houses in the social media realm, only intermediaries. 

Then there is the whole business of political thin skins turning on the media. As many as 255 of the 360 plus take down notices that Google got from the Indian government in the first half of last year related to the complaints by the government and the political class about criticism. It would be nice to get their details and be able to examine how justified the take-down requests were. Last week, a Maharashtra minister was complaining about press coverage that turned what he said was a minor defeat in the municipal council elections into a major one by virtue of the noise made about it! 

So far, Justice Katju has taken it upon himself to periodically opine rather than act, so that we don't really know in what ways he is toning up the Press Council to respond effectively to complaints. Even passing strictures against media outlets or statements exonerating them, with regard to specific complaints, which is within its powers, is better than no action. 

What action has the Press Council taken on the issue of the Herald in Goa being implicated in a paid news sting operation? Any investigation ordered? It would be nice if future press releases from Justice Katju could be about his institution's decisions rather than his views. In the meantime, the marketing manager of the paper implicated in the Goa sting has sent a defamation notice to Mayabhushan Nagvenkar who did the entrapment. 

One year of noisy debate and dangerous living just went by and we can always be hopeful about the next one. It is necessary to identify who is to rein in whom? When does freedom become licence? There will be more noise in the new year as we thrash these issues out.


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