“Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.” — Noam Chomsky
The unprecedented rise of the fourth estate is central to any understanding of conflict and conflict reporting today. The press plays a pivotal role in shaping perceptions about the Orwellian states, warring factions, generating fresh debates and discourses around existing conflicts and peace building measures. The paradigmatic shift to citizen journalism through social networks has also changed the dynamics of journalism today. Given the political and social ramifications of “free and fair reporting” versus “carefully scripted propaganda stories”, some reflections on changing role of the Fourth Estate would help us develop deeper insights into the functioning of the media landscape today.
In 1985, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher while addressing the American Bar Association had cautioned the world about the dangers of open society and the need to have a code of conduct for the media in place to restrict information flow which could jeopardise national security. It is the “Oxygen of Publicity” that determines the trajectory of any crisis and Ms Thatcher argued for cutting off this oxygen supply to the terrorists and trouble makers as a security measure to protect the state and civil society. In recent years several debates surrounding the censorship act and uniform media ethics, freedom of speech have started dominating academic discourses on the Press today.
Why censorship is necessary?
The purpose of any censorship on the media should be pragmatic and not draconian in nature. Globally, the same set of parameters work for any censorship law, or body – Regulation of broadcast, print and all media services, creating acceptable code of conduct and ethics, ensuring complaint and feedback mechanism are in place, monitoring of digital spaces etc. Censorship does not mean suppressing all that is happening in the political arena, or the security arena or any arena for that matter. It simply means doing away with any kind of “Breaking News and Exclusives Phenomenon” which could create chaos and insecurity endangering National security. Whether it is an autocratic regime or a democratic establishment the currents and undercurrents in the media landscape are almost the same.
An independent press both strengthens and weakens the democratic mechanisms of good governance. Serious debates on Press censorship dominated the political corridors of India when the Indira Gandhi government, imposed restrictions on freedom of speech and expression during national emergency in 1975. The censorship was withdrawn in 1977. The levels of restrictions however remain a bone of contention between the State Run and the Private media establishments. Whether it is the OSA (1923), or the IT act (2007) the Indian establishment has mechanisms in place to prevent information attacks of any kind. In 2010, the Irish government was deliberating upon Internet filtering, reinforcing the graduated response mechanism in some ways to secure its digital space. In Erdogan’s Turkey several journalists have been jailed time and again for going against the establishment. In 2014 Russia had closed down a number of media outlets and restricted foreign investment in its press industry in the name of safeguarding national interests.
In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks and internal disturbances across the world, limited censorship and not absolute free press is what is required today. There was a time when terrorist explosions were covered by the print media and the radio, but monitored by official sources for factual correctness. Today, in the era of TRPs and corporate benefits, credibility has taken a back seat. Imagine a Charar E Sharif episode or any of the wars fought by the India Military against its notorious neighbour being shown live on TV today. Uncontrolled media, with the backdrop of TRP race and corporatisation, has the potential of changing the word order, and creating anarchy which will give rise to more chaos both psychological and social. The Danish cartoon controversy falls in place here. Even Movies which usually mirror society have an uncanny knack of showing us such things; case in point being the Pierce Brosnan star ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ in the James Bond series which depicted this race toward anarchy.
One crucial point that needs to be addressed is who decides what the Nation wants to know? The Supreme Court of India had slammed the television media for live coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The minute by minute update could have jeopardised the entire operation involving commandos, and indeed did so at times. The apex court stated that any activity which endangers national security cannot be justified in the name of freedom of speech. The live coverage of the 2016 terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot Airbase, yet again highlighted the reckless nature of the journalists in dealing with national security issues. Why should the nation suffer?
In the ongoing trend of Primetime debates on television, it must be kept in mind that not everything that is discussed between 9 and 10 PM, leads to policy restructuring or institutional transformations. However what it does is, it creates an artificial sense of the right and the wrong, spawns public hysteria, and makes that momentary lapse, appear rational in the minds of the viewers. While Noam Chomsky suggests a course on intellectual defence against manipulation and control, would someone put a check on what is being fed to us? Is that reason enough for some form of censorship? Who decides?
*Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, MPHIL, MA (International Relations, Political Science, Development Communications.