Private Censorship and the Tethered Media

DNA newspaper’s removal of Rana Ayyub’s brave piece on Amit Shah with no explanation is shocking. It is reminiscent of the role that media owners played in censoring journalists before publication during the Emergency, prompting L.K. Advani to say, “You were asked to bend, but you crawled.” The promptitude with which some media houses are weeding out political writing that might get them into trouble should make us reconsider the way we think about the freedom of the press. Discussions of press freedom often concentrate on the individual’s right to speak, but may be better served if they also accommodated another perspective – the audience’s right to hear.

It is fortunate that Ayyub’s piece was printed and reached its audience before attempts were made to bury it. Its removal was counterproductive, making DNA’s decision widely visible in what is popularly known as the Streisand Effect. The controversy emerging from DNA’s taking down the piece has generated much wider attention for Ayyub’s article, which is now mirrored on multiple websites, its readership expanding as outrage at its removal ricochets around the Internet.

This incident is hardly the first of its kind. Just weeks ago, news surfaced of Rajdeep Sardesai being pressurized to alter his news channel’s political coverage before the national election.  The Mint reported that the people pressurizing Sardesai wanted a complete blackout of Kejriwal and the Aam Admi party from CNN-IBN’s reportage. Had Sardesai capitulated, significant news of great public interest would have been lost to a large audience. CNN-IBN’s decision would have been chalked down to editorial discretion, and we the public be none the wiser.

Luckily for their audience, Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose quit the channel that they built from scratch instead of compromising their journalistic integrity.  However, the league of editors who choose to crawl remains widespread.  Their decisions are protected by the Indian constitution.

The freedom of press in India only protects the press from the government’s direct attempts to influence it. Both big business and the state have more instruments at their disposal than direct ownership or censorship diktats. These include withdrawal of lucrative advertisements, defamation notices threatening journalists with enormous fines and imprisonment; and sometimes even physical violence. Who can forget how Tehelka magazine’s ‘exposure of large-scale government wrongdoing resulted in the Tehelka’s financiers being persecuted by the Enforcement Directorate, with one of them even being jailed for some time.

The instruments of harassment work best when the legal notices are sent to third party publishers or intermediaries. Unlike the authors who may wish to defend their work or modify it a little to make it suitable for publication, a publishing house or web platform would usually prefer to avoid expensive litigation. Third-party publishers will often remove legitimate content to avoid spending time and money fighting for it.  Pressurising them is a fairly effective way to silence authors and journalists.

Consider the different news outlets and publishing houses that control what reaches us as news or commentary. If they can be forced to bury content, citing editorial discretion, consider what this means for the quality of news that reaches the Indian public. Indira Gandhi understood this weakness of the press, and successfully controlled the Indian media by managing the proprietors.

Although media ownership still remains concentrated in a few hands, the disruptive element offering hope for free public dialogue is the Internet.  The World Wide Web gives journalists access to the public sphere through blogs, small websites and social media. This means that when DNA deletes Rana Ayyub’s article, copies of it are immediately posted in other places.

However online journalism is also vulnerable. Online intermediaries receiving content blocking and take down orders tend to over-comply rather than risk litigation. Like publishers, these intermediaries can easily prevent speakers from reaching their audiences. Consider the volume of information online that is dependent on third parties intermediaries like Rediff, Facebook, WordPress or Twitter. The only thing that keeps the state and big business from easily controlling information flow on the Internet, is that it is difficult to exert cross-border pressure on online intermediaries located outside India.

However, the ease with which most of the mainstream media is controlled makes it easy to construct a bubble of fiction around audiences, leaving them in blissful ignorance how little they really know. Very little recourse is available against the publishers or intermediaries if these private parties censor an author’s content unreasonably.  Unlike state censorship, private censorship is invisible, and is protected by the online and offline intermediaries’ rights to their editorial choices.

Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with editorial discretion or even with a media house choosing a particular slant to its stories. However, from the audience’s point of view, it is important that the public sphere ends up containing a healthy range of perspectives and interests, with a diversity of content across the media. If news of public significance is regularly filtered out of the public sphere, this affects the state of our democracy. The citizens of this country cannot participate in its governance without access to critical information.

 It is therefore very important to acknowledge the harm caused by private censorship. It endangers the democracy when just a few parties disproportionately control access to the public sphere. We need to think of how to ensure that the voices of journalists and scholars reach their audience. Media freedom is meaningful if considered in the context of the right of the audience, the Indian public, to receive information.