With the Ayodhya property suit — it is only that — entering the final phase, after maps were torn up dramatically in the Supreme Court, the studio battalions girded their loins. Last week, a prime time programme on Aaj Tak, which explicitly treated the Muslim side as interlopers, drew much adverse attention (the property dispute has ‘sides’ rather than ‘parties’, as is customary in a civil suit.) The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) has issued an advisory on coverage of the matter, which discourages speculation on questions which are sub judice, the use of demolition footage or celebrations, and extreme views in televised debates. They are being given the same modicum of respect as we have for traffic rules — well-meaning advice intended to be a rough guide, and not binding in any manner.
In retaliation, Newslaundry has launched Bloodlust TV, a public interest, public access snitching service to which viewers can report unfair or improper coverage. On the very day the NBSA ruling appeared, it listed instances of both. Predictably, Zee News, Republic TV and Times Now were the first channels to be called out. India Today took a creative route, asking panelists to speculate on the verdict, instead of speculating itself, and also ran inflammatory comments. Since channels constantly canvass the incendiary opinions of the political leadership, they probably think it’s all right, even when the flammable issue of Ayodhya is at hand.
Interestingly, the most telling blowback appeared on Twitter, with a joke campaign claiming that the Archaeological Survey of India had found evidence of a temple beneath the foundations of Noida Film City, where the studios of several television channels are located. Also on Twitter, interesting experiments in European futuristic satire are being seen, on the lines of: “The year is 2098. At this time of year, the prime minister of the UK makes a pilgrimage to Brussels to seek a delay. No one remembers the origins of this ritual any more, but it is taken very seriously”.
A much more problematic ritual is gaining ground in online communications, with the Delhi High Court passing a global restraining order against Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter, requiring them to take down content related to Priyanka Pathak-Narain’s book Godman to Tycoon, about the yoga guru Ramdev. The court had restrained the author and publisher from distributing the book last month, until portions were deleted. Now, for the first time ever, there’s a global gag order emanating from India. The relevant portion reads: “…the disabling and blocking of access has to be from the computer resource, and such resource includes a computer network, ie, the whole network and not a mere (geographically) limited network… When disabling is done by the platforms on their own, in terms of their policies, the same is global. So, there is no reason as to why court orders ought not to be global.”
The reasoning is sound, but can foreign influence be ruled out? Just weeks ago, the European Court of Justice had extended the reach of its law beyond the borders of its 28 member states, by ruling that Facebook could be forced to delete content worldwide. It was welcomed in the press at the time, since Europe continues to set the bar for internet law, having wrested the initiative from the US and UK, which were pioneers when the medium was new and untested. It was welcomed as progressive, but it was obviously an invitation for the courts of other jurisdictions to test the waters for themselves. At some point, the priorities of nations will come into conflict, and an international resolution mechanism will be required.
For the real lowdown on what the internet is doing to us, please listen to the Joe Rogan Experience (right, the UFO nutter zone). Rogan has Edward Snowden on, and it is as interesting as Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, which is just out. The show is almost three hours long, but does not tax your patience. This passage, for instance, should be compulsory hearing for those who disbelieve that their mobile phone is spying on them from the bedside table: “Every smartphone is constantly connected to the nearest cellular tower, even when the screen is off… (it) is screaming in the air saying, ‘here is my IMEI’. Every cellphone tower with its big ears is listening for these little cries for help… and it compares notes with other network towers … and that cellphone tower is going to make a note, a permanent record saying, ‘this phone handset with this phone number at this time was connected to me’. They can get your identity… the movements of your phone are the movements of you as a person and those are often quite uniquely identifying…” This is what being “forced to live naked before power” really means, and we are dressed in the emperor’s new clothes every day of our lives.