India – Charming state of affairs

Hot-headed democracy?

So across the country, and across the different estates—government, legislature, judiciary, media—we have a charming state of affairs in which action derives only from reaction.

Talking Media | Sevanti Ninan

If you ask whether social media is a boon or bane you should also ask whether the judiciary is a boon or otherwise, and ditto for the democratic governments we elect. For increasingly they all have their zany moments. And that is a kind word.

We’ve become such a reactive polity that our daily conduct will soon be hemmed in by injunctions issued by one or the other of these estates. All of them are on a short fuse.

If a Dalit poet and activist writes on social media about a beef-eating festival in Hyderabad, she encounters a chilling barrage of hate mail on the same trendy Twitter that the chattering classes are addicted to. Including a tweet which suggests she be raped on live television. A blogger called Kevin Gil Martin has described Twitter as lazy mob justice—an apt description of something which is more and more in evidence.

Then a video allegedly featuring Congress politician Abhishek Manu Singhvi goes viral and while Twitter reacts with glee, the always-dying-to-react Press Council chairman suggests restrictions on social media.

A newspaper goes overboard and fantasizes on its entire page 1 about troop movements, and the intent behind them. Six days later the Allahabad high court responds to a public interest litigation by directing the centre and the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure that there is no reporting on the movement of troops by the print or electronic media. A blanket ban, just like that?

Mamata Banerjee is determined to immortalize herself in social media’s rogues gallery by acting like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Metaphorically, it is off with their heads for anyone who makes fun of the chief minister, and a neat blow to their circulation for newspapers that do not play ball. Cyberspace responds as it’s wont to, and in vigorously waving the free speech flag prefers to ignore the more conventional skulduggery behind the cartoon-forwarding-professor coming to grief.

courtesy: livemint.com

Surely what also needs to be exposed along with Mamata’s reactive behaviour is Trinamool’s politicking-for-spoils culture that may be spreading in the state.

The ministry of information and broadcasting is amazing. Unable to get broadcasting regulation passed for a decade and a half, it resorts to malleable guidelines. Either you have a firm policy on what can be telecast in terms of adult fare, and when, or you don’t. Is this now going to be decided on a movie-by-movie basis, as happened last weekend with the Sony telecast of The Dirty Picture?

So across the country, and across the different estates—government, legislature, judiciary, media—we have a charming state of affairs in which action derives only from reaction. What happened to due process?

The Supreme Court is also attempting to curb runaway legal reporting. The difference is that it has initiated deliberations, which is as it should be. The purview of its deliberations to frame guidelines for how the media should report sub judice matters has arisen from an issue of allegedly leaked privileged communication between the counsel of Sahara Real Estate Corp. and the Securities and Exchange Board of India.

The court initiated a debate on the framing of guidelines for reporting of criminal trials to guard against any violation of Article 21 that guarantees the right of an accused to reputation and dignity and to ensure that his trial does not get prejudiced.

Then on 4 April, the court also ordered the inclusion of four more media guideline-related petitions. The issues raised in these petitions include norms for news coverage in electronic media, norms and guidelines to minimize presentation of sexual abuse and violence on TV channels, and contempt proceedings against journalists for publishing confessional statements of the accused before police.

The 2011 petition by Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad), which is one of the four the Supreme Court will take up, is also a response to the ad hoc manner in which police releases to the media material that can tarnish reputations.

Several journalists and media associations will be able to intervene in this judicial process of determining norms. That is how it should be. And where social media is concerned, too, that is how it should have been, before Markandey Katju (Press Council chairman) and Kapil Sibal (human resource development minister) chose to make pre-emptive statements.

But because nobody waits to give a measured response before they go their reactive way, all we will end up with is arbitrary curbs decreed by the government and implemented by service providers. Accompanied doubtless by an extended flurry of cyber abuse. As the current campaign seeking annulment of restrictive IT rules shows, undoing arbitrariness is going to take a lot of doing.

The poet Frances Trollope coined an evocative phrase with reference to Thomas Jefferson, referring to his “hot-headed democracy” which he said had done “a fearful injury” to his country. Who embodies it most here, I wonder: abusive free speech champions, the West Bengal chief minister, parliamentarians and the judiciary railing against the messenger rather than the bad news, or our hyperventilating TV anchors?

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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