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Monday, October 19, 2020

The wrong answer

Proposal to impose guidelines on digital media raises important questions. It would constrict freedom of expression.

By: Editorial | Updated: September 22, 2020 8:39:26 am
The odds have been stacked against the Indian woman scientist for a long while now.

The Sudarshan TV courtroom drama continues, with the Supreme Court seeking the Centre’s views on regulating media. In its reply, the government urged the court to restrict itself to the matter at hand — the false and socially inflammatory content of the ‘Bindas Bol’ programme — and not lay down any further guidelines for the entire mainstream media. So far so reasonable. But if the court wished to go beyond that point, the government added, it should begin with digital media. This is problematic on several counts. The first step towards regulation is licensing. Digital media is the only form of public communications permitted to operate without a licence, and has used this freedom to proliferate its influence. The government sees its influence as a problem, since unrest can be triggered by viral internet communications much more easily than by print or television programming. But using an umbrella term like “digital media” is problematic, too, since it covers a variety of media, from social media and websites to personal blogs. Should a citizen’s blog be subject to licensing, or her tweet-line? Such an interpretation of digital media would severely constrict the freedom of expression.

Besides, if virality is perceived to be the problem, media producers are incapable of inducing it themselves. Sudarshan TV needs the accelerators of Google, YouTube and Instagram, and the social supercolliders of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. This is a discrete issue, which has nothing to do with media creators, and should be addressed separately. The parliamentary standing committee on information technology is already engaged with social media companies. Deepening that process would urge them to invest more in network integrity and put the brakes on the virality of problematic content.

Content creators are subject to the very same laws that govern legacy media. For instance, libel is libel, whether it is committed online or offline. So the periodic urge to bring digital media under a licensing regime must be viewed with suspicion. During Smriti Irani’s tenure at the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, a committee was set up to examine the question of regulating digital news media. Nothing came of it, following resistance from the industry. An extra hazard is involved in news, since all legacy media, even radio stations, have a strong internet presence. Regulating the digital side would amount to adding a layer of regulation to the whole enterprise, by the back door. Over the years, it has been generally agreed that the media should regulate itself and there are already many — too many, in fact — IPC sections that serve to threaten, chill or punish. In a democracy, the media doesn’t need another set of commandments.

 

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