How do you censor a teashop?

How do you censor a teashop?

By M.J. Akbar | 11 December, 2011
Kapil Sibal at an event in New Delhi on Monday. PTI

Spokesmen do not speak for themselves; they are their masters' voices, or they don't remain the voice for very long. Ministers, similarly, do not propose dramatic, or drastic, policy options without implicit clearance from their boss. This is standard practice. Kapil Sibal is not solely responsible for the proposed censorship of social media, currently the most effective communication system on the net.

Censorship is generally the last temptation of self-delusional governments who want to console themselves with the illusion that their error is not misrule but vilification. The alibi for censorship is always national interest, of course. During the Emergency the government promoted whispers that CIA had bought out those journalists who did not crawl at its command. Now that KGB has died along with the Soviet Union, and CIA has become a bit of an ally, such insinuations do not wash. These days, the cause becomes communalism when what you really want to do is erase cartoons that demolish the sainted image of party leaders. This is an apt moment to stress that Indian media has rarely, if ever, hurt religious sentiments. When Europe was busy printing scurrilous images of the Prophet of Islam in the name of freedom, Indian media knew that freedom is not an excuse for irresponsibility.

Delhi's transitory rulers have become more clever, if not wiser. They think they can get away with surrogate censorship, by twisting one arm of media at a time, often through direct executive authority, or by the more palatable solution of ego-inflation or bank balance generosity. Individual journalists are pressurised through instruments of investigation in order to silence criticism. Owners of media feel the icy hand of power on their neck, sometimes disguised as a pat on the back. There are rewards for being faithful, from baubles to material benefits, although the number of reward points required for payoff does tend to keep rising. Media managers and writers know this. Those who can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen — and walk straight into the air-controlled comfort of the politician's drawing room. Others, who honour the dharma of journalism, do not make a fuss about discomforts or denial.

The Government of India will soon discover that the net does not bend as easily as some of its collaborators in private sector communication. 

Ministers can get addicted to bullying even when the environment is peaceful. When the weather becomes turbulent they slip into a war mentality. William Westmoreland, the only American general to have lost a foreign war comprehensively, consoled himself with the explanation that Vietnam was the first war in modern times fought without censorship. He told the Washington Post that "Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind." This is what worries the powerful most, that people can get "confused" by the truth. They want to eliminate debate, questions and consequent accountability because their greed for office is limitless. They sanitize media under their control, like Doordarshan and All India Radio, thus castrating its credibility. Then the scissors come out for media they do not control.

If censorship of the net was nothing more than a technicality — switching off the servers, for instance — it would have already happened. A democratic government does not, however, have the arbitrary authority of a Muammar Gaddafi or Hafez Assad, or the anonymous muscle of a Chinese Communist Party. Artificial arguments have to be used. But the Government of India will soon discover that the net does not bend as easily as some of its collaborators in private sector communication. The miracle of social media is its unique combination of individual voice and mass audience. It is a conversation with millions. How do you censor a teashop? In 1975 Mrs Indira Gandhi could imprison the Opposition and pockmark the front page with blank space, but she could not lock up every teashop. Social media is the largest teashop in human history.

There remains the vital question. Sibal is the spokesman; who is the master? Somehow Dr Manmohan Singh's name does not seem to be the answer. He would not recognise an emoticon.

Dropcap OnA pattern can be observed. The Congress is concentrating all its efforts on the UP Assembly elections, which have become Rahul Gandhi's pole for a vault into the PM's chair. Serious political decisions are being made to improve Congress fortunes. Ajit Singh would never have had any chance of joining the Cabinet had it not been for the possibility of an electoral alliance in west UP. Rahul Gandhi is aware that the Anna Hazare movement has made brilliant use of social media to spread its anti-establishment message. Hazare has publicly blamed Rahul Gandhi for weakening the proposed Lokpal legislation. The government can do nothing about Hazare. Is it trying to censor the internet that carries Hazare's message?

If this is the logic behind Kapil Sibal's idea, then here is some breaking news. Get real. This teashop has no walls.


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