Riot at Luzhniki

The venue was Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Fans were cheering in the gallery. The final game of the World Cup was played between France and Croatia. The referee was busy controlling the game. Suddenly four women in police uniform barged into the field, but were seized by the security personnel. Media did not cover much about this drama on the field but a group named Pussy Riot in their Twitter and Facebook posts claimed that the action was undertaken by them.

Pussy Riot is an open-membership collective that stages actions, and then circulate them as documentary videos and textual statements for presenting their demands. Their most important motif is stopping government from harassing for social media activism. Many people have been illegally arrested at various protests, by fabricating criminal cases and putting people in jail for no reason. Some of their ‘crimes’ included social media behaviour of “liking” messages. Hundreds of people are behind bars for similar silly reasons. So their agenda includes freeing political prisoners, allowing political competition and demanding the government to stop harassment over their legitimate rights.

Though venues of global summits and festivals sometimes turn to be space for public protests, Putin’s government was very careful about ideologically motivated groups making statements in the world’s biggest venue such as the World Cup. Pussy Riot was the only people to make an act about Russia’s unjust and arbitrary authorities during the event.

Shh… Silence!

At the same in India, the government is trying to control its citizens in similar ways. The latest among such control was an attempt to deploy a social media analytical tool that will create digital profiles of citizens, ostensibly to monitor their opinions about official policies. However, the Supreme Court evaluated the Social Media Hub as an attempt to create a “surveillance state.”

It is not the first time that the Hindu right wing groups play tricks to peep into people’s private life as well as abuse the legal system to silence people. In 2012 Shaheen Dhada, a medical student from Mumbai, was arrested for putting a post about her dissatisfaction against the shut down when Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray died.  Dhada’s friend Renu Srinivasan also was arrested and charged with engaging in speech that was offensive and hateful because she liked Dhada’s post. On 24th March 2015 the Supreme Court entirely struck down the Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act on grounds of vagueness, overreach, and the chilling effects it has on online speech.

Further this government arrested a number of people over sedition charges including the JNUSU leader Kanhaiya Kumar. The successive governments have used this dreaded colonial-era law (Section 124 A of IPC) to instil fear and intimidate students, journalists, intellectuals, social activists, and those critical of the government. Hardik Patel, Aseem Trivedi a cartoonist from Kanpur, Binayak Sen a paediatrician, Arundhati Roy writer and activist were among the few people charged with sedition. However, from among the 112 registered cases of sedition across the country between 2014 and 2016, only two have led to convictions according to the reports.

In a series of murders which followed similar patterns many liberal voices were silenced. Journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi were the prominent people murdered. The Bombay high court had observed that the “trend of killing people who believe in liberal principles is dangerous” and is bringing disrepute to the country.

Lastly, many mainstream media and journalists are directly or indirectly controlled as is evident from the increasing number of journalists and channels shouting for Modi while more pressing issues are unreported or brought in dim light. We know that how money and media were garnered and journalists were made into PR intermediaries before the 2014 election and created a situation for Modi to become PM. After the election the mainstream media continued singing glories of the government, but those media that did not yield to its pressures were arrogantly harassed positing a threat to free speech.

Popular Vigilance

True democracy functions properly only when the fourth estate is vigilant. Indeed the journalists become true patriots when they make the government more transparent and accountable. However, India is witnessing a decadence in the mainstream media as they manoeuvre the public opinion unfavourable to people. Recent sting operations have showed that the mainstream media is apparently complicit in the buying and selling of news space to promote particular right wing religious and casteist agenda.

Abhijit Majumdar We also see alarming trends in media houses which expel uncompromising journalists while rewarding those who perpetrate hate speech. The case of Abhijit Majumder is classic of today’s journalism. Majumder, former managing editor of Mail Today, was instrumental in catalysing the communal violence erupted in Kasganj in Uttar Pradesh on January 26 this year as he twitted communally toned information about killing of two people one of whom was a journalist. Though he deleted the tweet the tweet the damage was too huge that it claimed more than 100 lives and immense property. Nonetheless in not less than a couple of months the Ministry of I&B proposed to hire him for an annual compensation of unusually high amount rewarding him for the favour. However, the proposal was withdrawn due to the resentment from the Board of Prasar Bharti. But according to newslaundry.com Majumder is now editor-in-chief of a new web media run by Asianet News Network, which is a Jupiter Capital venture founded and run by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the BJP Member of Parliament.

At this predicament it is the parallel media as well as social media that are doing the job supposed to have done by mainstream media. It is that voice which the government is trying to put out. However, the Supreme Court has promptly intervened in the government’s attempt to make 360 degree monitoring on all social media platforms.

Social media can be a great disservice if the people who use them are intolerant. But in present day India social media is the only powerful weapon in the hands of people that the politicians are afraid of. It is the power of Internet that has made many citizen journalists as well as freelance journalists to follow up various notorious cases including the mysterious death of Justice Loya. Therefore any attempt to control social media should be resisted at any cost as the Right to Privacy is our Fundamental Right.

(This article was published in Indian Currents on 23rd July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 30)