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Free Speech: look beyond content
An analysis of the raging Free Speech debate in India points to a flaw: while all eyes are on the content, there is little focus on the media ownership pattern. PADMAJA SHAW calls upon regulatory bodies to concentrate on the structure of media industry.
Posted/Updated Sunday, Dec 18 17:57:10, 2011
This year should be declared the Year of Free Speech, not just in India but all over the world. The world has witnessed people’s movements for democratic rights on an unprecedented scale. Starting with the elections in Iran, through Tahrir Square, to the “Occupy” movements all over the world, individuals have chosen to wrench back the initiative from the oppressive governments and predatory corporations, and they have done this primarily through those genuine market-places of ideas: the social networking sites.
A few years ago, at any conference on media, Indians could be justly self-righteous for the apparent freedom we enjoyed for free speech even as in our neighbourhood every nation-state was still grappling with dictatorial/theocratic governments. Indian democracy may well have been an inspiration for some of the uprisings in the world.
Then, in the last quarter of this year, two influential voices in India– Justice Katju and Kapil Sibal – reminded us that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, once again. They raised controversies by calling for content control of legacy media and new media. While electronic media were in the cross-wires of the debate for sometime, print media were not really given a clean chit either. The worst, of course, was that the bastion of free speech, Internet, is now openly under attack. Openly, because it has been covertly under attack for some time now in India and elsewhere.
The free speech debate has two aspects to it. One is the debate around media industries – ownership pattern including cross-media ownership, licensing, taxation, exim policy for media technologies, anti-trust issues, action against predatory market practices and so on; the other is about the manifest content on these media.
Between these two areas of contest are the so-called stakeholders – the corporate media, the state, and the citizen. When one looks at the debate on free speech, all appear to be labouring under a deep sense of moral ambiguity about the issue.
Let us take the corporate media. Since the dawn of the era of liberalisation in 1991, the corporate media have expanded in all sectors – newspapers, magazines, film, TV, radio, cable, net, mobile technologies – in all aspects: production, distribution,and exhibition/reception/reach. The expansion was possible purely because successive governments have looked the other way when unregulated expansion was taking place, partly also because successive governments, after the lessons from the dark days of Emergency, have trodden lightly when it came to regulation of media. The resultant opening up is something to celebrate, as the Indian media market today is one of the biggest, holding out the promise of the greatest diversity.
However, in the post-liberalisation era, the entrepreneurial opportunities expanded leaving large accumulated surplus with the business houses. While the licence raj was pronounced dead by many a pundit, we have discovered lately that the liberalisation juggernaut was rolling rapidly ahead not because of the absence of licence raj but because of the skimmed cream of corporate profits that was oiling its wheels. All it needed to self-perpetuate was to invest in a newspaper here, a TV station there, to manage “images” and to keep the reader/viewer enthralled through trivia.
During the early years of expansion, when regulatory frameworks could have been put in place, especially when there was ample international experience from other democracies on cross-media ownership, licensing requirements, and transparency/disclosure requirements for promoter/investors, the Government of India did not act proactively with foresight then. Such a framework could have been devised in neutrality as specific players were not in the market then and the regulatory framework could have been applied uniformly to all. If the government comes up with regulation now, there are entrenched interests already in the market and they are bound to politicise it, saying that it is an attack on free speech to control media entities opposed to the ruling party, even when they violate other laws of the land.
The corporate houses are happy having created a regulatory logjam. Being either subsidiaries or arms of major national/international business houses, media houses have acquired enormous clout in the political economy of the country and have learnt to use the clout to drive policy and control political fate of elected governments. Media houses are active players in pushing the liberalisation agenda on behalf of their corporate bosses and advertisers. Not much unlike Fox News the Indian media houses set the agenda for national debate and can pressure the government over issues they deem important. The politicians have little choice but to fall in line if they want visibility and voice.
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 in-roads 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, 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 kinds 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 the 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 sanitise 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 legitimised 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 this with glee on Facebook. One does not know how many of 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 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 SRK smoke in peace, let Dev Anand be page one lead; but let’s look at what’s happening to the industry first.
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