Dissent in the time of Internet

Roopen Roy

(Views are personal)

Authoritarian leaders in power have seldom lost an opportunity to stifle criticism, muzzle the press and stamp out opposition. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 after the Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy. One of his crimes: he had described the sun as a star. He was one of the first martyrs who died defending scientific thinking and freedom of expression.

Galileo Galilei was persecuted because he challenged the notion that the sun circles the earth. He proved that it was the other way round. He was accused of heresy, forced to retract and was placed under house arrest until his death. His theory challenged a statement in the religious text that proclaimed, “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." In the last days of his life he uttered the famous words “ Eppur si muove” which means “and yet it moves”. Those few defiant words are as inspirational to us even today.

Influencing the media to dole out twisted versions of truth is not new. The hero of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty- Four worked for the Ministry of Truth. His job was to re-write newspaper reports so that they conformed to the party’s ideology.There was a cold war era joke about Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia . What is the difference between the two enquired a visiting Indian communist. He was told, “ Comrade, they are as different as chalk and cheese. In Izvestia (News) there is no Pravda (Truth) and in Pravda there is no Izvestia”.

Closer home, our freedom fighters suffered immensely for dissenting and protesting. Their publications were banned, printing presses were seized and the authors of “seditious” material were imprisoned. In June 1975, when Emergency was declared,the freedom of the media and expression was under severe attack. But such attacks were not confined only to that dark chapter in our country’s history.

In his recently published memoirs “Lucknow Boy”, Vinod Mehta has provided an inside view on what happens to an unyielding editor. He has recounted how he was sacked by the “owner” because he published news items and reports that were not palatable to certain politician “friends” of the “owner”. In another instance, the “owner” of the magazine stood by him. Big mistake! The owner was harassed and humiliated by those in power and his home and offices were raided by income-tax authorities.

So what has changed? Technology is the game changer. It has accelerated the speed at which information is transmitted . It has expanded the connectivity. Today, news travels at the speed of the internet and we have conquered distances through connectivity. Those in authority are dazzled and perplexed.They no longer know how to control and censor effectively.

The Jasmine Revolution that is sweeping the Arab world is caused by inequality, lack of development and corruption. There is a no doubt, however, that social media has played a role in channeling dissent and organizing protesters leading to regime-changing revolutions. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is again clearly aided by social media. The recent protests against Vladimir Putin’s re-election are clearly orchestrated through social media. WikiLeaks again is a phenomenon that governments do not know how to deal with. They are caught like a deer in the headlights. Many are responding by attacking social media and jamming the internet. It has stirred the Secretary General of United Nations Ban Ki Moon to come out publicly against such moves: “Today, within their existing obligation to respect the rights of freedom of assembly and expression, governments must not block access to the internet and various forms of social media as a way to prevent criticism and public debate."

Minister Kapil Sibal has recently met the representatives of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo and raised with them the issue of removal of “blasphemous” and “defamatory” material. I agree with Mr Sibal that social media should not be abused to hurt the religious sentiments of any community. But who will judge what is blasphemy, sacrilege or libel? Clearly it should not be a politician or a bureaucrat exercising unbridled authority.

I have a suggestion. We should consider framing some transparent rules and appoint a fair umpire. We have a precedent. In 1965, the Press Council was formed through an act of theParliament. A retired Supreme Court Judge heads it. It is a quasi- judicial body. It adjudicates the complaints against and by the press for violation of ethics and for violation of the freedom of the press respectively. Can we not expand the Press Council Act to cover new media? Instead of censoring the social media and screening content, should we not use existing legal processes to punish the guilty? If an individual writes a false and defamatory story about an individual, there is legal redress in an action in tort. If someone incites communal violence surely the individual can be prosecuted in law. Why is there a need for the government to step in and play God? Freedom of expression is vital to a democracy and the right to dissent is critical to a healthy public debate. No one has summarized the importance of dissent better than Voltaire, “ I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Hello, are we listening?