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Backstory:  From ‘Partly Unfree’ to ‘Fully Unfree’? The New IT Rules Could Hasten the Slide

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

The two Union ministers, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar, who had jointly unveiled the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, at a press conference on February 25, are today hard at work trying to defuse the blowback.

Barely had the import of their exertions sunk in within the country, when uncomfortable news flowed in from without. In early March, the US-based Freedom House report lowered India’s rank from a “free” to a “partly free” country followed by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, that had once ranked India as the “world’s largest democracy”, now considering it an “electoral autocracy”. The decline in the standards of media freedom in India was a major parameter in arriving at such conclusions.

There are only two ways to respond to such assessments – either you go back to the drawing board and re-work policies that have potentially autocratic impacts, such as these new IT rules; or you dismiss all criticism as unwarranted interference in India’s internal matters and carry on regardless. Messrs Prasad and Javadekar opted for the second course, going by the messianic zeal with which they are hard-selling the new IT rules.

Both ministers have taken recourse to utilising issues of public concern, like fake news; child pornography or possible compromise of national integrity and security, as justifications for the new rules, even though there are general laws in existence to tackle each one of these concerns which every functioning media entity has abided by without a whip being held over them. While talking to the Indian Express recently, Prasad punctuated each observation with a disclaimer: “India is a democracy. We welcome criticism and dissent”…but…the identity of users voicing criticism needs to be known (which sort of negates the democracy bit, doesn’t it?). “We respect privacy”… but…there can be no privacy for “terrorists” and the corrupt (surely people can only be deemed terrorists or corrupt through a proper criminal justice process). “We are not asking to decrypt”…but…“All we are asking is who started it, which caused mayhem and violence” (even when there is no mayhem and violence involved?).

The tonality of Javadekar’s argument is somewhat different. In his interaction with the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA), for instance, his attempt was to pacify the audience by tamping down the threat – that this is just a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism; all digital news publishers have to do is to furnish basic information, fill out a simple form and periodically address user grievances. It is another matter that the DNPA, representing the digital properties of legacy media, was more than happy to see the “digital only” platforms chained and bound. It “welcomed” the rules, but asked for an exemption from them for its representatives. So much for solidarity in the cause of media freedom!

Also read: Why The Wire Wants the New IT Rules Struck Down

So why do the new IT rules potentially hasten India’s slide from ‘free’ to ‘partly unfree’ to ‘fully unfree’? There are many reasons, but let me focus on three. The first aspect to consider is the strong resolve and intent of the Modi government to crush all media dissent. Messrs Prasad and Javadekar are right when they claim there have been extensive consultations before the IT rules took shape. Consultations did take place – not in the sense of inviting feedback from interested parties and the public, but in terms of government confabulations. The determination to mow down those rare and recalcitrant media weeds which dared to sprout in a field full of sunflowers faithfully tracking the power-emanating sun, had been evident since the Modi government’s first term in power.

As Union I&B minister, Smriti Irani had expressed her discomfort with what she described as ‘views’ marking the ‘news’ and proposed to regulate it (‘Smriti Irani Reveals Modi Government Plan to Monitor, Regulate Online News’, March 20, 2018). The Wire had, at that point, presciently observed, “the proposal to regulate online news is likely to open a new front in the Modi government’s controversial relationship with the media”. The latest conversations on this issue that a Group of Ministers (GoM) conducted, were held amidst the pandemic. This indicates the absolute urgency the issue had been accorded at the highest levels of government.

File photo of information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar and law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Photo: PTI/File

For an understanding of the 97-page government report on those GoM meetings, read ‘An Annotated Reading Guide to the Modi Government’s Tool-Kit for Managing the Media’ (March 7). One strand that emerged clearly was the chagrin over the role of digital news portals in countering the government’s narrative. Unsurprisingly, The Wire found mention thrice as “exerting a negative influence on the public perception of the government.”

The second aspect to be considered is the chilling effect that these rules could have, and perhaps already have had, on Indian journalism. An effect of this kind cannot be quantified. Freedoms are like spirit, they evaporate without leaving a trace. If some entities in the inter-connected, post-internet world of journalism are shackled, there are immediate and deleterious impacts on the journalistic freedom of all entities.

Henry Jenkins, in his 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, talks of the post-internet fluidity of media content across multiple media systems. In other words, news that breaks on digital media platforms also causes ripples in legacy media. The IT rules ask for self-regulation on the part of the publishers of digital news content. In actual fact, what is being demanded is pliancy. Mandatory self-censorship is built into the three-tiered architecture of the grievance redressal pyramid, with the government perched at its pinnacle through its “oversight mechanism” and powers to order take-down of content.

Also read: The New IT Rules Are a Hodgepodge of Hamfisted Regulations

This brings us to the third disturbing aspect of these rules that needs attention: lateral surveillance. From where, after all, will the “grievances” come? They would emerge from “interested” parties. Some among them may reflect genuine grievances (this column, incidentally, has been carrying mail critical of The Wire’s content from time to time). But the great majority of such “grievances” will be manufactured to extend political and personal agendas. A distinct characteristic of the Modi era has been the emergence of peer-to-peer monitoring for ideological purposes. It was the foundation on which the vigilante activism that saw the rise of lynchings of supposed beef eaters and assaults on inter-faith couples accused of ‘love jihad’. This model is now being transplanted on to the media space and is guaranteed to cause great disruption. The limited time, money and energy available to digital platforms that should be spent on news generation will now be diverted to respond to such “grievances”.

Cases against the new rules have been filed by LiveLaw in the Kerala high court (‘Kerala HC Issues Notice to Centre on LiveLaw’s Plea Against New IT Rules’, March 10) and by The News Minute and The Wire in the Delhi high court (‘Why The Wire Wants the New IT Rules Struck Down’, March 9). Both pleas have pointed out that, apart from various other deformities, the IT rules are ultra vires the Information Technology Act, 2000, their parent act.

The ball is now in the court of the courts.

Myanmar’s murderous junta and the media crisis

The first glimpse the world had of Myanmar’s repression of the media was when Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo, were locked up under the country’s dreaded Official Secrets Act for 500 days. They were investigating the Myanmar military’s killing of ten Rohingya men in September 2017. The men had been lined up in a village in northern Rakhine and shot dead pointblank.

If the civil society in Myanmar, and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, had protested those killings and the subsequent incarceration of journalists who covered the incident, they may have been able to prevent the present army-led coup and the murderous rampage currently being witnessed in the country. Instead, Suu Kyi actually defended those arrests. Thankfully, a year and a half into their seven-year prison sentence the two young men were released after a “presidential amnesty”.

Meanwhile, India is not covering itself with glory over the way it is responding to the present crisis in Myanmar. It has attracted attention for its stance over the UN Security Council statement on Myanmar, along with China, Russia and Vietnam. The UNSC statement was received with approbation from groups with their eye on the ball like Civil Disobedience Movement, which tweeted, “International community needs to send a stronger message. Right after UNSC produces a ‘condemnation’ statement, the terrorist junta again murdered people in broad daylight. What kind of message does it send to UNSC?” (‘UNSC Issues Presidential Statement on Myanmar; India’s Amendments Incorporated’, March 11).

Demonstrators are seen behind makeshift barricades during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar, March 4, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Apart from this, India is also using this period of great distress for the Rohingya community in India to launch an ugly crackdown on them. Already some 170 Rohingya refugees in the country have been rounded up and kept in a camp in preparation of deportation. In 2017, the Modi government had announced its plans to deport all Rohingya not having the necessary documents under the Foreigners Act. This would be a gross violation of the well-established international principle of non-refoulement that prohibits countries from sending people back to the country of origin, should they potentially face persecution there. A recent statement by the international organisation, Human Rights Watch, calls upon the Indian government to “halt any plans to deport ethnic Rohingya and others to Myanmar, where they would be at risk from its oppressive military junta”.

The media in Myanmar is also under serious threat. Recently, a photographer, Thein Zaw, was arrested while covering demonstrations in Yangon. He and five others have been charged with “causing fear, spreading false news or agitating directly or indirectly”. It is time the world shouted out louder against this outrage on personal and press freedoms in the country.

Reporting with safety during elections

The Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) has come out with a timely safety guide for journalists covering the elections. The sections on digital safety are particularly useful since most of us are still grappling with how to use technology in ways that don’t endanger us. The themes covered in that section include ‘Digital Safety: Basic device preparedness’; ‘Digital Safety: Securing and storing materials’; ‘Digital Safety: Safer communications and Digital Safety’ and ‘Online harassment, trolling, and misinformation’.

As far as election safety is concerned, the CPJ has some well-honed advice, including the absolute necessity of carrying correct accreditation or press identification but which should only be displayed if it is safe to do so. Preparations for possible escape should things get rough is another aspect that is underlined. This includes parking your vehicle in a secure location facing the direction of escape, working out an “escape strategy in case circumstances become hostile”, noting exit points, gauging the crowd mood, and not getting personally embroiled in arguments which would be a recipe for disaster in such a context.

These instructions are largely gender neutral. The International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) came out with a terrific handbook, ‘Safety Handbook for Women Journalists’ in 2017. Understanding the election crowd to protect oneself was an important theme it covered. The experience of Pakistani senior journalist, Quatrina Hosain, while covering a 2013 political rally in Wah Cannt, Pakistan, was cited: “There were multiple people grabbing at various parts of my body. I was scared that if I fell, or any of my clothes were torn, no one would have been able to prevent a rape from taking place. I felt like a cornered animal.” Hosain, with the support received from family and friends, showed terrific courage in the aftermath of that experience, using it to educate women journalists. “I am not afraid to talk about it,” she said.

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Readers write in…

De-criminalise elections, writes Dr. Akshay Bajad, Mumbai.

“I am an independent researcher and have the following suggestions to the Election Commission of India in order to help voters exercise their right to vote in an informed manner and to discourage political parties from fielding candidates with criminal antecedents:

    1. Issue necessary directions in order to print the panels (name, photo and election symbol) of the candidates with declared criminal cases against themselves in red on ballot papers.
    2. Issue necessary directions in order to display a copy of the summarised version of affidavits of contesting candidates prominently outside each polling station.

Earlier I had submitted to the ECI the need to issue guidelines regarding submission of an affidavit containing a statement with respect to the status of the promises made in the previous election manifestos of the political parties (while in power) before the ensuing elections, by suitably modifying the Model Code of Conduct.  I did not however get a reply.

If these suggestions are mainstreamed, I believe they would help greatly in decriminalising Indian elections.”

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Kusum Avasthy Gupta IRS (retd):

“I read article, ‘Why Rahul Gandhi Threatens the BJP Even When He Is Not Winning’ (March 9). I am 70 years old. Although not a student of History or Political Science beyond school level, I have always taken a keen interest in contemporary affairs since my school days. I am witness to the formation of Congress (I) after the so-called Syndicate of the Congress lost the presidential election. We play with history and misinform the younger generation by saying the Congress Party was formed in 1885 and has contributed a lot in setting up a modern democratic nation and that Rahul Gandhi carries forward this legacy and it is the only threat to a rising BJP.

To put history in proper perspective, the old Congress which was formed in 1885 died its natural death after Indira Gandhi formed Congress Indira, which was nothing but her family corporation being strengthened by her reckless son Sanjay Gandhi, who was solely responsible for terrorising the nation and Delhi during the Emergency. His premature death saved the nation from his misdeeds. Who filled his place? Her pilot non-political son, Rajiv Gandhi. What followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination was a genocide of the Sikhs by this family corporation who wished to teach the Sikh community a lesson. Installing Rajiv Gandhi as PM was subterfuge inflicted on nation by sycophants of this family. The present day Congress is not a political party – it is a jagir of the Gandhi Family. It is our good fortune that the whole nation is not their jagir anymore.”

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Albert Bonnie, a grade 10 teacher working in Malwani, Mumbai:

“More than 90% of my students reside in the slum of Ambujwadi. During the past year, they have not stepped inside a school building as schools in Mumbai were shut. As the government asked schools to shift to online lectures, my students were left behind. I have lost many students already because they simply did not have access to a device.

Two weeks back, the Maharashtra govt announced that examinations for Grade 10 classes are to begin on April 29, with practicals starting on April 8. The government expects my students to compete with the rest of Maharashtra when they haven’t even set foot inside a classroom for over a year? If anyone justifies this using the explanation of ‘health risks’, then all I would ask them is to take a five-minute tour of Ambujwadi. Being a slum where social distancing inside a home itself is impossible, it can be stated without any doubt that a child is safer at school than in the community.

This story is the same for every student in the various slums of Mumbai. An entire generation has endured a learning gap from pre-independence days and now they are being asked to compete with the rest of the world as though nothing has happened. So I write this letter on behalf of all those students. If they are to give board exams on April 29, then they deserve a minimum of two months in school. If not, postpone the exams till schools are open and working for a fair amount of time.”

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Suchita, a senior fact checker from ‘Logically’:

“While fact-checking a claim, we came across a story published by The Wire dated March 6, 2021, titled ‘UP: Madrasas Protest Move to Make Teaching of Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana Mandatory’. The story states that “NIOS has mandated the rule for madrasas as part of the new curriculum on ancient Indian knowledge and heritage in the New Education Policy (NEP). However, this is incorrect. On March 03, 2021, the Ministry of Education clarified that this is not mandatory. The clarification reads as follows: ‘It is clarified herewith that NIOS accredits Madrassas under SPQEM (Special provision for quality education of Madrassas). Various subjects are offered to learners under this provision-without any hard line boundaries of fixed subject combinations unlike that in the formal education system. It is totally the discretion of the learner to opt for subject combination from the bouquet of the subjects provided by NIOS’.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in