Monday, August 27, 2012

Hindi, English press concur on need for restraint

The Hindi print media’s chronicling and commentary on the obvious tensions in the rights-regulation equations of the information society, augurs well for the vibrancy of contemporary discourse in the Hindi press, says ANAND VARDHAN. Source: -TheHoot.

Is there a language colour when it comes to popular perceptions about the custodians of liberal space, and more particularly, about issues concerning social media freedom? Seeking a categorical reply to this is fraught with the risk of generalisation. But, as a question of perception (not necessarily of fact), there is little doubt that mainstream English press is viewed as the ‘natural’ flagbearer of liberal right to expression. So how has Hindi press been responding to recent turn of events which again brought to the fore the question of unfettered freedom of social media and the governmental efforts to restrain it?

The question is dovetailed into the state’s stated objectives in doing so - the purposes of national security, communal harmony, clampdown of fake PM accounts on social media and the moral fibre of the society in which social media operates.  But, any question about the approach of the Hindi press to this has to first confront an even more basic question: how alive has  the Hindi print space been in addressing the questions of cyber space?

The perceptions about IT- freedom sensitivity in the Hindi press is not helped by some stereotypes of tech-apathy springing from political narrative in the Hindi speaking belt. For instance, in a case of  dogmatically stretching the Lohiaite ideology too far, the ruling party of the most populous state in the region had an anti-computer policy as recently as early 2012.  Interestingly, a party ideologue justified the discarding of the policy by asserting that Lohia was not against small machines like computer! And has it been easy to erase from popular imagination ‘Ye IT- YT kya hai?’ (What’s this IT-YT? ) remark made by  former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav during his time in power. May be not.

But, holding Hindi media’s engagement with issues of cyber space captive to such stereotypes cannot give you an idea of the vigour with which a section of Hindi press has reported and commented on the current concerns regarding social media freedom and government’s attempt to muzzle a part of it.

For starters, the reports and the front page display of the story in major Hindi dailies can’t escape attention. Tracking the story from a general blocking of sites having inflammatory content (of Pakistani origin, and seen as proxy ‘cyber war’) to the crackdown on objectionable material on social media and the response of the social media sites, the Hindi dailies have been following and displaying the story on the front page. Dhai Sau Websiton Par Rok (250 websites blocked) reported Jansatta (21.08.2012) , while Dainik Jagran chronicled  government’s face-off with Twitter on blocking-compliance. It carried reports with idiomatic headlines Twitter Par Sarkar Ki Nazar Tedhi (22.08.2012) Government tries  browbeating Twitter and Twitter Ne Sarkaar Ko Dikhaya Thenga (24.08.2012), Twitter defies government. The blurb for the same story reads Ultimatum ke bawjood 28 webpage on ko nahi kiya pratibandhit ( Despite untimatum, 28 webpages not blocked).

 The paper continues to track the story on its front page on 25 th August  as its headline read  PMO ke naam wale farji twitter accounts block ( Fake twitter accounts carrying PMO name blocked) while the blurb ran Assam hinsa sambandhi web page band karne par asamnjas ( Dilema over blocking Assam violence related webpages). Dainik Bhashkar and Hindustan have also been consistent in reporting the story on the front page.

The government’s proposed legislative  response to address the perceived ‘excesses’ of social media found its way in Dainik Bhaskar’s headline Social sites par lagaam ke liye aayega kanoon (23.08.2012), Law to  be framed to restrain social (networking) sites. The strapline for the story says Bharkau samagri par dandatmak karyavai ka hoga pravdhan, Vicharon ki abhivyakti ke samarthak nahi honge kanoon se prabhavit ( Penal provisions will be for inflammatory content, supporters of free expression of thoughts not to be affected by the law). Hindustan carried a report (24.082012) on how government has directed various departments and officials to be cautious while sharing information on social networking sites, Adhikari satark hokar karein sites ka istemaal ( Officers have to be alert while using sites).

 Apart from the coverage and its display, what is interesting is how the story has engaged the editorial commentary and opinion pieces in the Hindi press. In its analytical and prescriptive thrust , the discourse in the reams of Hindi papers has shared common grounds with the commentary in the English press ( though neither of the two is a monolithic entity). In the days since the story surfaced, The Indian Express ( ‘Net Caution’, 21.08.2012) and The Hindu ( ‘Tweets and Twits’, 25.08.2012) have chosen to editorially comment on the unfolding layers of regulation -cyber freedom skirmishes. So have Hindustan (‘Afwahon ke Shikaar’ , Victim of rumours, 21.08.2012) and Dainik Bhashkar ( Afwaah Se Aatank, Terror through Rumours, 21.08.2012). The running thread in these edits is the emphasis on the need to blend freedom with reasonable restraints in sensitive times. In both English and Hindi editorial space what has swung the vote in favour of governmental crackdown is that the issue has not been cast on the lines of free speech versus regulation or dissent versus the state but has been addressed as a question of national security , involving the physical safety  of millions. Absolute advocates of right to expression might not find solace in these edits.

The opinion pieces in Dainik Bhashkar– Kis tarah ka morcha bana raha social media (What kind of front is social media building?) by Naresh Goswami ( 23. 08.2012) and Americi Paath Banaam Internet Ki Azaadi ( American Lesson versus Internet Freedom, 24.08.2012) by Piyush Pandey turn a critical lense on  the national as well as international milieu which is guiding the social media milieu. In their reflections they share lot of ground with Shashi Tharoor’s piece in The Hindu ( ‘Living in the reality of virtual threats’, 23.08.2012).In this context, another instance of  convergence of perspectives is interesting to note . Piyush Pandey’s piece also shares it prescription for government with The Hindu’s edit- counter the hate on social media through the  same platform. And it seems that government isn’t thinking differently either, as Business Standard ( 25.08.2012) ‘ reported: ‘Govt, too,plans to use social media’.

But talking of perceptions and given the ideological tilt of some of the largest selling Hindi dailies like Dainik  Jagran, is there a whiff of ‘conspiracy of silence’ on the question of identifying some  extremist  groups  involved in the hate campaign on social media?  The question becomes relevant in the light of a report published in The Times of India (23.08.2012) carrying the headline ‘ 20% of banned hate pages put up by Hindu groups’ . The report  goes on to quote intelligence agencies to say  that  apart from web content, some of the SMSs that spread panic leading to exodus of NE people were generated by fringe Hindu groups. Readers have missed this aspect in the reports published in Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhashkar. And interestingly, one of the most prolific commentators on social media in the Hindi print space, Piyush Pandey hasn’t addressed this oversight too in his pieces for Dainik Jagran ( Internet ki Takaat Ka Durupyog, Misuse of the power of internet,19.08.2012 and Farzi Khaton Ka Garbarjhala, The Messy Cobwebs of Fake Accounts,26.08.2012) and in his piece for Dainik Bhashkar,  Americi Paath Banaam Internet Ki Azaadi ( American Lesson versus Internet Freedom, 24.08.2012). But how much should be read into such ‘perceived’ omissions? If deliberate, this could be a case of  a worrisome bias in reporting and commentary. However, warts and all, the Hindi press has taken some reassuring steps in taking account of the issues concerning social media.

In the changing landscape of an information society, the Hindi print space is trying to engage and make sense of the defining contours of social media. Its chronicling and commentary on the obvious tensions in the rights-regulation equations of the information society augurs well for the vibrancy of contemporary discourse in the Hindi press.

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Anne Lin
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