As independent India turns 70, there were some suggestions to the office of the Readers’ Editor, which if implemented would become censorship and infringement of free speech. The immediate provocation for these suggestions was the formal statement by the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) that condemned the online abuse heaped on the Bengaluru-based journalist, Dhanya Rajendran. The network demanded a safe online space for women.
Earlier, the journalist had tweeted that she walked out of the film,Jab Harry Met Sejal, midway and that a film she had walked out of before was Sura, a Tamil film starring Vijay. This led to an avalanche of sexist abuses, including threats of rape, from a section of self-styled fans of the actor on Twitter. The NWMI statement read: “The Twitter accounts of those who had issued rape and death threats have not been suspended. The lack of prompt response from Twitter is of deep concern, given that misogynist trolling, sexist and sexual abuse and outright threats create an atmosphere of intimidation that forces many women to self-censor or even quit the platform altogether.”
Instead of outrightly condemning this appalling behaviour, there were some who suggested that journalists stop using social media platforms — they have their own outlets after all. They wanted media organisations to develop a code that defined journalists’ engagement on social media. The defining element of this code, according to this section, would be to bring any posting by individual journalists on platforms, including their own news platforms, under the purview of editorial oversight. They expect the Readers’ Editor to examine every social media post by professional journalists and check whether it has the potential to generate troll-backlash. In an earlier instance, one caller wanted me to take up the case of an offensive posting by a third-party on the Facebook page of a staff of this newspaper.
Freedom of expression
I am stupefied by these suggestions. The focus was not on the abnormal behaviour of some on social media. There was not a word on the impunity with which trolls operate. The troubling part was that these suggestions came from otherwise reasonable people who were disturbed by the new depths to which public discourse is plunging by the day in cyberspace. I would like them to ponder the Supreme Court ruling quashing Section 66A of the Information Technology Act a couple of years ago before suggesting any form of restrictive and limiting mechanism. Section 66A contained provisions that led to the arrests of many people for posting content deemed to be “allegedly objectionable” on the Internet. Justices J. Chelameswar and Rohinton F. Nariman’s 112-page verdict drew critical distinctions between discussion, advocacy and incitement. They held that a law curtailing speech or expression can be made only when such utterances inexorably lead to or tend to cause public disorder or tend to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India.
The suggestion to curb an individual journalist’s engagement on social media is a minefield as it conflates too many roles and responsibilities. It fails to delineate the rules that govern the flow of information in mainstream media, where multi-tiered gatekeeping processes generate the cooling period between an idea that captures an individual’s imagination and being put out in the public sphere. There is an element of pause and act, which is also subject to the scrutiny of at least three more pairs of eyes. However, social media posts are often impulsive and impressionistic. There are no gatekeeping processes that aid a sense of responsibility.
A journalist is also a citizen who enjoys the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Freedom of expression is an inalienable right, and expressing an opinion about a film, or a policy, or a politician on a forum that calls itself social media is a natural extension of that inalienable right. It is another issue that anonymity in these platforms generates space for hate that is capricious, unreasonable, absurd, and chilling. The focus should be on the role of powerful technology platforms to create a space that eschews hate, misogyny, and bigotry. It cannot be on individual journalists who post an opinion on these platforms. However, journalists can set standards by exhibiting the best practices of public discourse in social media.