Feb 052013
 

My column in today‘s DNA

(outragistan, is a somewhat popular word on social networks – the author did not coin it, but thanks whoever did).

 

In the last month, the nation, propelled by the ever increasing shrillness of 24 hour news channels, aided by the ever more intransigent nature of protestors, lurched from outrage to outrage. It began with outrage on Yoyo Honey Singh’s concert –making him a household name. The protests had an effect of getting his New Year concert cancelled, but as compensation he became so known, that he was on national television as a featured performer in the finals of a music talent show. Then this was followed by outrage on misogynist statements by relatively obscure political personalities, giving them the kind of publicity that money cannot buy. But the price of this was public haranguing on TV till they apologised. Then there were protests on Ashish Nandy’s statements, followed up by a FIR under the SC/ST Act; outrage on Shah Rukh Khan’s article followed by a lengthy explanation; right wing protests on Pakistani authors visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), that led some to cancel; potential rage on Salman Rushdie visiting Kolkata that led the Mamata Banerjee Government to prevent him. And finally protests by some Muslim organisations in Tamil Nadu against Kamal Hassan’s new Tamil Film Vishwaroopam – which has taken a life of its own.

 

Just as a cycle of protest and outrage dies out, a new cycle of protest and outrage began, the previous outrage forgotten.  It is almost as though this has become the Republic of Outragistan. Ask those protesting about what they are protesting about – and they will tell you in all earnestness – against an insult to xyz (where xyz could be religion, language, culture, nation, hero, sentiments, feelings). Most have not even interacted with the objects of their outrage.

Goethe, the German author, poet and dramatist, observed that the “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty” (1859), termed this behaviour of wanting to silence a particular view, as evil. He said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.  If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth:  if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”. In India, Evil of this nature is triumphant time and again. Opinion is getting stifled, creativity is being suffocated and intellectual and personal liberty are on the line. Organisations with political backing stop couples from cuddling, women from smoking and drinking, films from being released, books from being sold, essays from being taught, paintings from being viewed with rich political dividends. Instead of being arrested for breaching the peace, cultural vigilantes call the shots.

 

As author Salman Rushdie, no stranger to censorship and an attempt to muzzle his right to express, points out – there is a “cultural emergency” in India , that allows mobs to disrupt the work of artists, writers and film makers. Censorship is being applied in the name of maintaining law and order. And, herein lies the crux of the matter. Law and order cannot be maintained by kowtowing to outrage. Nor is it by giving into the threat of violence. Law and Order is maintained by protecting the rights of the individual against the ire and rage of a group. The more various governments give in, the more they encourage the politics of competitive disruption of society and the attempt to stifle voices. John Stuart Mills puts in words that resonate even today – If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (On Liberty, 1859). In India, the concept of freedom has to move away from placating groups that claim to be offended, to protecting individuals who have the right to offend. That will be the test of Democracy.

 

May 012012
 

Before I begin this post, a few of declarations :

a) post 26/11 I believed, and still do, that some news channels should have lost their licenses because I believed that they put lives at risk

b) post 26/11, my revulsion at private news channels was so great that I stopped watching TV news.

The National Broadcasters Association had come up with a code of conduct and those who watch television news will be best suited to talk about whether those are followed or not.

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Over the last few days, the Indian Express has been carrying stories on Congress MP, Meenakshi Natarjan‘s private member bill on “Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012“. I have tried to get a copy of the bill, but that is work in progress. The proposed bill calls for the creation of a body that can take suo moto action against media houses, confiscate their property, suspend their license to conduct business and gag them. As far as I know it hasn’t called for public flogging, but then I haven’t read the bill. AS i pointed out on twitter

Meenakshi Natarajan’s proposed bill makes Draconian seem like a soft liberal person who goes on candle light marches

I still don’t understand how such an unconstitutional bill even came to be drafted, especially by someone whose bio reads law graduate? I may understand the why of it, but not the how of it ? How can you have an authority that investigates without anyone complaining ?

According to the Bill, this Authority is exempt from the Right to Information Act and can even order the search and seizure of documents or records of a media organisation.

The Bill lays down standards which it says the media “must” follow. These include: “prohibition of reporting any news item based on unverified and dubious material”; “exercising due care while reporting news items related to judiciary and legislature,”; clearly segregating “opinion from facts,”; “maintaining complete transparency and impartiality in internal functioning” and “prohibition of reporting news items which are obscene, vulgar or offensive.”

It also lays down that the electronic media shall not “showcase clippings from entertainment programmes or from those aired on entertainment channels for more than 15 minutes of its daily broadcast time.”

This bill’s approach seems to be the same approach taken by eminent civil society members on corruption. there is a problem. let us hit that problem with a sledgehammer and the problem will go away. Unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way. You cannot have vague legislation ‘unverified or dubious material’. If you want verified news – go read a history book replete with multiple citations.

Laws exist, be they laws on defamation or laws on incitement that can handle any breach by the media. Those laws can and should be applied if required. I remember a TV news channel that falsely implicated a maths teacher of procurement (she was accused of pimping her students) losing its license for a given period, I cannot think of a single person who disagreed with that. channels have been fined, channels have been told to move shows to other times, channels have been requested not to carry troop movements – and channels have complied. There are laws that exist, and every business knows that they need to comply with the law. Why do you then need additional laws?  Meenakshi Natarajan’s proposed bill is in the same space as Jan Lok Pal. Instead of applying the laws that exist, you build one draconian monolith that has no  raison d’etre. 

I also believe that it is a wake up call for a media that has gone over the top.  It needs to self regulate. The role of the NBA needs to be strengthened, it needs to have teeth. Currently out of 400 odd news channels, it exerts authority on 10% of those channels. ( i am talking about TV news, because Print is less pervasive and more fragmented).   Also the Press as a whole needs to get its act in place. The kind of arm twisting that went into suppressing the paid news report and replacing it with a bland equivalent needs to stop. There needs to be a separation of powers between that part of the industry that monitors and that part that puts out content.

Also, the reason why the media has gone nuts is that is run for reasons other than profit. Stop political funding of news. Stop state funding of news. Have a TRP system that is more universal, which will tell advertisers and clients exactly what they are paying for (and not the viewing patterns of less than 10,000 people.) Have legislation on the cross ownership of media. Bring in addressability. But no, politicians will do none of this, because the fall out will be so great and their political obsolescence will be so rapid – that they would be out before the ink is dry on the bill. So, they come up with silliness like this. The bill won”t be passed is, hopefully, a given. But, someone who introduced a bill like this deserves censure.

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Finally, if the Congress Party says it doesn’t know about the bill or that the bill doesn’t reflect its policies then maybe it needs to have words with its M.P. who introduced the bill. The bill is not an independent member’s bill, it a Congress MP’s bill. And this particular Congress MP is an aide of Rahul Gandhi. If none of them knew about it, then either the organisation is terribly inept, or the MP has crossed the line on discipline.

 

do also read Anant Rangaswami on First Post on why the proposed  bill was a non starter

Apr 242012
 

…with all due respects to Marquez. :D

Decline and fall of civilisation can be seen best in West Bengal. In 200 years you move froma Raja Ram Mohan Roy driven enlightenment to Mamata Banerjee driven idiocracy. From arresting cartoonists, to painting the city blue, from moving Pakistan to sharing a border with Bangladesh to inexplicable bitchfits when things don’t go her way, Mamata has been a source of amusement for that part of India that doesn’t have to live or do business in West Bengal.

Amul, as usual, gets it right

There is an online exhbition of Mamata cartoons here