Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Censor The Net At Your Own Risk, Dear UPA

A former Chinese colleague and I once had a conversation about censorship. I had just started a brief stint with a government-owned newspaper in Beijing and wanted to know how the system worked. I'd known Guo - her last name - for about a year before that. She was a journalism student at Renmin University.

She explained that the first level was watchwords. These are topics you cannot touch at all, such as corruption among high-up CPC officials, "if any" in her words. Then there were sensitive subjects that could be reported but only in a certain way (The Dalai Lama - always 'Splittist'; Tiananmen Square - students became violent, etc). But I was interested in the idea of censorship itself.

I asked her why the government felt it had to censor such topics in the first place. "Because the people are stupid", she said. I was a taken aback. "What do you mean, 'stupid'?" I asked. "They don't know what's good for them. If they interpret news in the wrong way, there could be chaos or violence," she replied.

I have to remind you that Guo was a journalism student at one of China's top universities. And she believed it was absolutely essential for the government to censor the news.

I understand (but don't condone) this attitude. In China, the CPC builds part of its credibility by demonising third-party influences (the Dalai Lama, pro-Democracy protestors, the Vatican). If citizens found out more than they needed to, the credibility of the party would collapse. Without its credibility, the CPC regime would collapse.

This brings me to censorship in a democracy. This is antithetical. In democracies voter choices are based on knowledge and understanding of the candidate and the party's record. For long, this understanding came from the press. When India's press was censored during The Emergency the country rightly threw out the party responsible in the next election.

Today, there are justifiable complaints about press bias. Perhaps coincidentally (or perhaps not!), such complaints have increased as the internet spread. This bias has led to the popularity of online satire and political blogs. Yes, some push the envelope mixing conspiracy theory with fact. But show me a single newspaper, TV channel or magazine that is not guilty of this.

It doesn't bother the government one bit when such conspiracies hurt the opposition. However, a single website targeting Sonia Gandhi is all it took for Kapil Sibal to embark on his quest to silence the web.

Censoring the net is as bad as censoring our free press. The press retaliated with great vigour once the yoke of The Emergency was lifted. The result was a deep embarrassment for the Congress in the next election. The net belongs to the people. Censor it at your own risk, dear UPA.

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