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New media means new challenges

Freedom of expression has never been more important

  • Ivan Fernandes, Kolkata
  • India
  • September 25, 2012
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Freedom of expression is the core basis of a democratic society. This is not just my opinion; it is historical fact. The greater this freedom is, the more mature the democracy.

Yet control of news and information continue to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian regimes, says the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index for 2011. Even legitimate governments and their institutions sworn to uphold democracy are not exempt. India is such an example and I am appalled at what is happening.

Instead of progressing with the times and strengthening our fundamentals, the powers that control our state are in regressive mode.

In Chandigarh, a 22-year-old woman has been charged for posting comments deemed abusive by the territory’s traffic police on its Facebook page.

Then there is the case of the Mumbai police slapping Aseem Trivedi with sedition charges because he allegedly mocked the constitution with cartoons that he posted on websites.

A few weeks ago, India’s interior ministry banned about 300 webpages ranging from mainstream media to blogs, videos from YouTube to Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, on the pretext that it undermined the multiracial fabric of the country and so were a threat to national security.

And let us not forget the whimsical Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal state chief minister who is easily irked by criticism. She even jailed a university professor for circulating an email with a cartoon lampooning her.

As an Indian and a journalist, I see such aberrations as an attack on my freedom of expression. I am after all not a citizen in a dictatorship.

In the more mature US democracy for example, the government will have to protect the man behind the film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad although it has ignited violence across many countries. It will have to protect his freedom of expression although it condemned his message as disgusting.

It is reported that the American government asked the online video site YouTube to block the film. The provider refused, saying it came within the purview of the country’s law of allowing people to express different opinions and that the film did not break the law by inciting people to violence. In the US, it is not illegal to disparage religious figures. The provider however restricted access in countries such as India, where it is illegal.

Where the law has been broken, the law has been broken. I have no dispute with that.

I also understand that while freedom of expression is the hallmark of a democratic society, our freedom comes with special duties and responsibilities – that we respect the rights and reputation of others.

The state is a medium to arbitrate this right, not curtail it. However, such arbitration comes with a caveat that the state is there for the common good by ensuring national security and public order.

But every step must be taken to ensure that in doing so, our freedom of expression, this cornerstone of democracy, is not eroded.

In a democracy, comment is free. The internet and social media have made it freer. I may not like what other people say about me. Others may not like what I say about them. All have the same right to say what is on their mind, just as much as we all have the right to safeguard against defamation and calumny.

The likes of Mamata Banerjee are too full of themselves and the likes of the Chandigarh traffic police have a sense of misplaced importance. The case of arresting someone on charges of sedition can be pinned down to overzealous officials misled into thinking that mocking the Constitution will lessen its value.

And banning internet pages on the pretext of upholding national security is obtuse. It reminds me of when I was in high school and we as students asked our principal to include the use of internet in the curriculum. The idea was quickly shot down. The internet, he said, was pornography.

We find ourselves in a similar dimwitted predicament because while the tenets of democracy are old, the medium to exercise our freedom of expression has changed.

Media outlets were once few and specialized, and the profession limited to a select few. Now everyone can be a source for news, information and comment. Never before have information and comment been so readily available to make journalists of common people and common people of rulers.

It has transformed society and the way we function, in that it has given us all an equal stake in voicing our displeasure or appreciation of every action or non-action, especially of governments. In some case, it has even brought about regime changes.

In such a scenario, bans and curbs are futile because once anything appears on the internet, it can never be made to vanish. That is its nature. Its back-ups, routers, servers, peer-to-peer sharings etc. can only be partially restricted though not very successfully.

Misinformation, disinformation, inaccurate and incorrect information can be countered by free and correct information. This will help us to make better informed choices in ascertaining its credibility.

Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Kolkata
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