Free press in India a myth: 66A proves it | delhi | Hindustan Times
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Free press in India a myth: 66A proves it

You can be sure freedom of press is more a theoretical concept than any kind of reality. Some of it is our apathy, for sure. But a large part of it is in understanding that we really don’t have a free press. Mahesh Murthy writes.

delhi Updated: Nov 28, 2012 15:34 IST
Mahesh Murthy

I have friends from abroad who wonder how Indians tolerate corrupt leaders.

When one of our senior politicians (also a sports administrator) is said to have more cash in one single Dubai account than Warren Buffet’s net worth, or when a very powerful politician (a woman with no known sources of income) is estimated to have a wealth running into the billions of dollars, or even when Jagan Reddy officially declares his assets in hundreds of millions of dollars without saying where it came from... why is there so little outrage?

Some of it is our apathy, for sure. But a large part of it is in understanding that we really don’t have a free press.

My friends in politics lament that if Chinese politicians can be even more corrupt, why single Indians out? The fact is that the Politburo remains firmly in charge in China because of the draconian curbs on both the traditional and digital press. They’re simply not allowed to write about corruption. Actually, neither is our press.

Even though we claim to have a free press, the truth is that there are ‘sacred cows’. My friends at one of India’s biggest newspapers say nothing can be written about the man from Matoshree, alive or dead. That one of our TV channels has a strong bias to the ruling party is evident when its group editor, famous for exposing Indian troop positions in J&K, was found acting as an agent, fixing ministerial berths.

While that channel is owned by a powerful industrialist, and his brother owns its rival, you’re not likely to find stories critical about oil shenanigans there. A firebrand magazine once lived up to its name with exposes of the Congress, till it was supposedly raided and pummelled into submission. It is now are a pale shadow, featuring stories critical of rival parties’ politicians. To top this, large media houses actually sell “immunity from exposes” for a minimum revenue guarantee.

With all this, you can be sure “freedom of press” is more a theoretical concept than any kind of reality.

One huge exception recently has been digital media. Today 63 million of us get on Facebook every month. About twice as many get on Google. Compare that to our leading English paper’s circulation of 7 million and you can see that ‘mainstream media’ is no longer mainstream.

While political might keeps television and print under their thumb, Kapil Sibal and others have figured that Google and Facebook don’t even have journalists. They’re not amenable to tax-raid terrorism either. So, they’ve drafted regulations to threaten all of us into keeping our digital mouths shut.

Section 66A of the IT Act can jail you for three years if you post, and I quote, “information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character”. And the person who defines this offensiveness or menacing character? Not a judge or a magistrate, but anybody who feels so.

A girl happens to mention on Facebook that one shouldn’t shut down cities when politicians die. A Shiv Sena pramukh takes objection — he calls and threatens her, sends goons to break down her uncle’s hospital, complains to the local police — and they arrest her while letting the goons off.

This is basically what it’s about. Using 66A to intimidate into silence.

For a while Kapil Sibal defended it saying he was trying to protect people from “offense to religious sensibilities”. But then Google disclosed that over 99% of the India’s censorship requests were for political, not religious reasons.

No matter what politicians say, let’s understand this — Section 66A is not about preventing offence — it’s a tool to intimidate us into not posting inconvenient messages. So the loot can go on.

Forget about amending the section, I believe the act needs to be repealed in its entirety.

Mahesh Murthy is a well-known investor and marketer. He tweets @maheshmurthy
(Views expressed by the author are personal)