Sunday, April 22, 2012

Justice Katju's letter to Ambika Soni on Social Media

I got this from a friend (who I shall name if he likes). I'll just say a couple of things before leaving you to it.

1. The letter shows a colossal lack of understanding of the nature of social media. Holding Twitter & Facebook responsible for user posts is like asking the sweepers in charge of Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park to censor people who speak there.

2. Perhaps it's time to junk the term 'social media' itself. For one, it'll avoid confusion for people who just don't get it. Also, as I noted in a short, earlier blog post, the term is quite limiting. On a related note, like Facebook & Twitter are more like Online Public Squares. They serve many more purposes than just being alternatives to the media.

And now for the letter (all emphasis is mine). 

Mrs. Ambika Soni,
Hon’ble Union Minister for Information & Broadcasting

New Delhi.


Dear Mrs. Soni,

I am deeply distressed that a new practice has developed in the social media of its misuse for defaming people/groups/religions/communities. The recent example is of dissemination of a CD which even the author admitted  had been distorted for defaming a reputed senior lawyer of the Supreme Court and Member of Parliament, and the threat to defame a Union Minister. The social media kept uploading the CD despite a Court injunction against it and despite the author admitting that he had doctored it.

In my opinion unless some curbs are placed on the social media nobody’s reputation will be safe in India.

I have repeatedly said that while there is freedom of the media in our country, no freedom can be absolute, and has to be coupled with responsibilities. The reputation of a person is a valuable asset, and cannot be permitted to be trampled upon by mischievous people. The social media often acts irresponsibly, which can irreparably damage a person’s reputation.

I would therefore request you to set up a team of legal and technical experts to find out ways and means of checking this menace, including, if the government thinks fit, initiating suitable legislation for this purpose, for filtering out such offensive material.

Yours sincerely,

          (Markandey Katju)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Media Exposes & Army Morale

Nitin Gokhale is a fine journalist, many, many years my senior. If I one day achieve his reputation and credibility in the areas I report on, I would retire extremely satisfied. 

A column today on Rediff, however, sent me a mixed message. In it he, argues:
“While I will defend the right of every media person to report what he or she thinks is right, I am afraid none of us has thought through the consequences of the effect it will have on the psyche of the Indian soldier and, more importantly, the way ordinary Indians will view the Indian Army”.

He makes two arguments in the above lines that, while quite distinct, have been joined at the hip. First: that every journalist must “report what he or she thinks is right”. Second: that some of these reports may have a damaging effect “on the psyche of the Indian soldier” and the way citizens view the Army.
Why is it important that we treat these as separate issues? I’ll tell you. First some background. I am married into a family that has sent its men to the armed forces continuously since the 1960s. I have had several conversations with them about the kind of stories recently doing the rounds. My family and I share Nitin’s concern and disgust on some of these (the “C-word” story, for example).

However, I have also heard from them about military morale outside of the context of these hit-and-run jobs. Here’s what I know: Nothing is more disgusting for an officer than having to salute seniors who loot the country they swore to protect. That is why General VK Singh’s campaign against corruption is being praised in every barrack and on every street corner.  

I have yet to hear of an instance when a solider has criticized the media for exposing, in a balanced and truthful way, the rot that exists within the armed forces. In fact, my father-in-law, who retired as AVM from the IAF a few years ago, frequently tells me: You guys should let people know about the swift justice that follows these #*$@%’s scams”. No doubt, army justice is meted out relatively quickly compared to our lumbering civilian courts. In other words: ‘Write about the scams and how we mercilessly deal with these #*$@%s’.

The media is doing its duty by helping General VK Singh expose corruption. It is not damaging the morale of soldiers nor is it reducing the army’s credibility in the eyes of India’s citizens. That is being done from within by corrupt officers and babus in the military and various ministries.

On the contrary, by exposing corruption, the media is making this fine institution more robust by exterminating the moths eating away at its fabric. In this fight, I stand firmly behind General Singh. I am sure Nitin does too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Trolls and Democracy

This tweet from CNN-IBN chief Rajdeep Sardesai via TMC MP Derek O'Brien got me thinking. 

+1 Bless social media! Power with zero responsibility! Have a good day.

Millions use twitter for various reasons. Some want entertainment. Others want learning. Some want to keep up with the news, others want to make news. Many love debating, a few just like watching. That's us - people; society.

However, one group – the trolls - are a differennt beast (pun intended). Trolls don't just disagree with you. Disagreement is fine. I follow and interact with many Tweeple whom I openly disagree with. Trolls, add vicious abuse and sometimes, dire warnings to their dissent. And they do this anonymously.

By itself anonymity alone isn't bad. Many have valid reasons for staying anonymous: privacy and workplace rules are good examples. I have had conversations with such anonymous Tweeple off Twitter. Trolls however, hide behind the anonymity so they can never be tied to the opinions they express publicly. Worse still, their sole agenda isn't to improve the quality of debate but to identify people with opposing views and launch ad hominem attacks.

I block trolls for the same reason you’d slam the gate on a snarling dog. You’d rather not deal with it. They either get tired of snarling or find a new target to latch onto. I suspect it is these people who Rajdeep had in mind when he referred to "power without responsibility".

Rajdeep is right in that sense. Trolls have great power. They are blessed with the greatest of all freedoms – the right to expression. This freedom, more than any other, guarantees our democracy. Without a public space for dissent and disagreement, our Republic wouldn’t be one at all. Just look at China or Syria. Both, rather ironically, use the word ‘Republic’ in their official styling. But both throttle public dissent. Public affairs, then, become the privilege of the elite. 

And that brings me back to Twitter. I feel the word social media is a misnomer. Why? In the modern sense, the term ‘media’ is synonymous for ‘the Press’. Social media, then, tends to get mistaken with concepts of citizen journalism.

I think it is a much more fundamental concept. I think the term ‘social media’ underplays the real role sites like Twitter (and Facebook and others) play in our democracy. To me, these are the new public squares; where people of all political and social colours come together to share, debate and communicate. Some use it as a soap box; others, to sell their wares. Still others use it for gossip. All this is fine. 

The public square was the hub of societies in years long past. Sites like Twitter are merely shifting the location of this hub. They have become our go-to place for news views and entertainment.

And this takes me back to the trolls – those who enjoy “freedom without responsibility”. They abuse this public good – the internet’s public square – and so, must be discouraged. We do not tolerate anyone who abuses and threatens us on a public road. We must not allow this in cyberspace. 

Trolls hit at the very idea of a Republic by undermining the role of public debate. They - rightly or wrongly - make our governments more suspicious of the usefulness of public debate in shaping the public affairs. Let us then preserve our new public square so we can disagree as all rational people would. But let us also keep the beasts outside the gates.

Friday, April 13, 2012

North Korea's Missile: (conspiracy) theories

So the North Koreans launched a missile before dozens of foreign journalists to prove Kim Jong-Un was a real man. To cut a long story short, it didn't get very far. The phallic jokes just write themselves. Kim couldn't get it up. Missile flops on launch. Premature explosion.

Ok, I'll stop. So what really happened? There are three probable answers. And I'll list out probable outcomes. I should say - these scenarios are based entirely on what I've read so far about the incident. They contain several assumptions.

1. A genuine failure It is after all North Korea -  a poor country with severe arms control and technology import restrictions enforced on it. Yes, they have nuclear weapons. But remember, even the nuclear tests they conducted yielded less than expected according to some assessments.

2. Sabotage/ Knocked out by enemy missile It's no secret that the West and neighbouring countries would want the test to fail. This would strike a double blow. It would humiliate the new North Korean leader just as he tries to establish himself and it would set back the country's missile program.
Sabotaging the missile itself would be tough, but not impossible. The South Koreans and Japanese would presumably have assets on the ground who could achieve this. More likely, though is the possibility that the missile was shot out of the sky by another missile. This could have been launched by an aircraft, a ship or by land-based systems.

3. Deliberate failure or in other words, a North Korean deliberately caused the test to fail in order to fix/ shame someone else within the regime.

1. Assuming the test was a genuine failure, Pyongyang may try to save face and re-flex its muscles. Worryingly, this could take the shape of another missile test or worse, a nuclear weapons test.

2. Assuming the missile was sabotaged or knocked out, Pyongyang may respond violently, like it did shortly before Kim Jong Il died by shelling the South. Or it may choose to accept that it has worked itself in a corner and return to talks. It could also respond with a follow-up test in an attempt to prove it still has what it takes despite efforts by its enemies to corner it.

3. Assuming an extremely unlikely deliberate failure, it depends on which faction within Pyongyang caused it. Assuming Kim Jong-Un secretly sabotaged his own coming out party, he may use it as an excuse to purge his regime of potential rebels, and surround himself with loyalists. Assuming it was the rebels who sabotaged the missile, they may use it as an excuse to oust Kim Jong-Un as an incapable and immature leader, unfit to carry on his father's legacy.

The truth lies somewhere on this page. Only time will tell what really happened.