In the last few months a slew of bills have been promulgated to monitor (read surveil), control, and if need be, suspend or suppress all kinds of communications through all and every available means of media. It is widely acknowledged that in the last ten years the mainstream media in our country has turned into Godi media, meaning the most powerful TV channels or the newspapers and periodicals, both in English and vernaculars, particularly in Hindi, have turned into veritable lackeys of the central government. According to a reliable estimate almost 70% of media networks are controlled by one particular industrial conglomerate. Dismayed by this revelation the ‘Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’ (TRAI) observed that the ownership of media companies by a handful of entities would increase the possibility of misuse of the rights of the media for interests that are not in the larger public good.
But then the government is hardly concerned about public good. On the contrary even after having the mainstream media under its thumb it feels insecure. This is the age of technology, newer forms of media, myriad communication channels are evolving every day. This has made the government paranoid. The number of laws that has been enacted in the last few months towards the singular purpose of throttling public opinion is astounding - the Telecom Act, Press and Registration of Periodicals Act (PRP Act), Digital Personal Data Protection Act (DPDP act), Post Office Act, Broadcasting bill and last but not the least IT amendment rules, 2023. All these acts have been promulgated in the most undemocratic fashion. Government makes a show of public participation by calling for people’s opinion on the bill as they have done for the Broadcast bill, for which the deadline for submission of suggestions was January 15. Needless to say everything in the proposed bill is already decided and any call for suggestion from the public is merely a show. Besides there is hardly any discussion or debate in the parliament, neither is it forwarded to a select committee for further consultation as was the practice earlier. Government gets it passed in both the houses of the parliament through its brute majority, or more conveniently in a ‘Virodh-mukt and sawal-mukt sansad’.
Basically all these new Acts are more vitriolic forms of the old ones. There are a few common threads which run through most of these bills. Let’s have a look at them. Firstly, some of them replace colonial era laws - the Telecom Act replaces the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, Post Office Act replaces Indian PO Act of 1898, PRP Act replaces the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867. No doubt with time many of the provisions of these laws had become redundant. But the same people who once sabotaged the freedom struggle are now trying desperately to wipe off their sin by replacing British time laws and bragging that they are freeing the country of the colonial mindset. In the same breath they boast of ushering in cultural independence by eliminating Mughal period from Indian history, by destroying Mughal architecture, by arbitrarily changing historical names of roads, towns and places.
Secondly the acts are replete with broad definitions that could include everything. For instance a ‘message’ could mean any sign, signal, writing, text, image, sound, video, data stream, intelligence or information sent through telecom intermediary. Likewise a program may mean audio, video, audio-visual content, images, films, features, dramas, documentaries, advertisements, serials, writings etc. Definition of telecommunication has been widened to include transmission, emission or reception of any messages by wire, radio, optical or other electro-magnetic systems. It is so wide that it could include online communication services like Zoom, Meet, Skype and even those sharing content on Instagram, WhatsApp, even e-mails. The Broadcasting bill may turn out to be the most draconian since it defines a broadcaster as any content creator, including those broadcasting via internet. Thus OTTs, websites, comedians, you-tubers, social commentators, meme-makers all are included in its purview. The bill even goes on to include media which are in the realm of the future, citing ‘emerging technologies’ say like artificial intelligence. This is certainly being done with the sinister purpose of shutting out any content which is not to the government’s liking. They are particularly weary of you-tubers. Ever since the mainstream media lost its credibility, large number of viewers (users number around 450 million) have turned to you-tube channels for news and commentary. The likes of Ravish Kumar, Dhruv Rathee, Ajit Anjum have chalked up millions of subscribers. This trend has mounted a challenge to the mainstream media became obvious when the recent assembly election results were announced and analysed by an ‘independent media’ consisting of Newslaundry, News Minute, Scroll, The Caravan and The Wire. This endeavour has reportedly been very popular with the viewers, though exact viewership figures are not available.
Thirdly the process of registration or issuing license, now termed as authorisation has been made more stringent. In the Telecom Act the central government has kept to itself the exclusive right to authorise every kind of media, digital and all. Now online messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Zoom, Gmail will be required to obtain authorisation from government similar to telecom providers like Jio, Vodafone, Airtel etc. In the name of national security the government can possess, suspend, intercept or detain any of these telecommunication services or network. And in the name of the same national security it could also allow any unauthorised entity to operate; it is entirely the government’s discretion! In the PRP Act beside the Press Registrar who is empowered to issue registration certificate, a Specified Authority has been created who needs to be kept informed whenever any newspaper or periodical is registered. This SA is omnipotent with the power to cancel any registration. He or she could be anyone from District Magistrate to ED or CBI official. In the Broadcasting bill the broadcaster’s volume of membership and profile will be monitored periodically. It is not mentioned specifically in the bill but number of subscriptions beyond a threshold may not be permitted. The narratives of the bills have been purposefully kept vague even allowing for new rules to be framed from time to time. What’s more the additional rules will be framed by the government only and they need only inform the parliament about it, no need for any discussion whatsoever!
Fourthly the narratives of all these Acts show that the government is least concerned about the privacy of its citizens. In the Telecom Act identification of every user is now a must. For that biometrics may be used, even there is the possibility that linking Aadhar with mobile may become a legislation. This will mean handing over entire personal details to the government. The DPDP Act takes violation of privacy to the extreme when it states that Indians will have to part with their personal details from birth to death. The government can share all these personal information with surveillance agencies. The Postal Act empowers any official to open a parcel if he thinks it is suspicious, without informing the person to whom it has been sent. He can also send it to customs or any other agency for further investigation. Even encryption is under threat. WhatsApp and other popular messenger service providers offer end-to-end encryption security feature that ensures complete privacy for individual users. Government or any agency cannot intercept or read these messages. However again on the pretext of national security, private safety or curbing fake news, government is pressurising these service providers to reveal the source of any message or even withdraw the entire encryption feature. This will severely violate right to privacy as a fundamental right.
Fifthly the definition of News and Current Affairs is intriguing. These are defined as events of social, political, cultural and economic nature. News providers are nonplussed at the use of the word ‘cultural’. Evidently it points to any content which outrages public decency or morality. Now who are going to judge these criteria? For monitoring content and all other activities of the broadcasters and network operators there is a proposal for a three-tier regulatory and advisory council. The composition of all the three-tiers will be decided by the government. Needless to say these will be entirely stacked with people handpicked by the government. Hence viewers will have to depend on these sarkari/sanskari people to know what is decent or moral!
Last but not the least the government has absolute power to raid the office or residence of any content-creator, broadcaster, telecom or broadcasting network, service provider without informing the purported offender or violator or without assigning any reason for the same. It can arrest anyone indiscriminately, it can seize, copy and confiscate all equipments and devices, including digital ones. We have seen how the devices of the Bhima Koregaon detenues were confiscated and tempered with by inserting utterly incriminating material. In the recent past we have seen how the premises of Newsclick have been brutally raided and searched, journalists and other staff detained and interrogated for hours, their laptops and mobiles seized and confiscated and not returned for days. Of late this has become an extraordinary attack on the freedom of the Press/Media and the individual. The Supreme Court, moved to action by the petition of five renowned academicians, has woken up to this blatant violation and has asked the central government to frame guidelines for such activities and observed that uncontrolled power to access the devices was unacceptable.
All these Acts and soon-to-be Acts are not merely draconian, they lead to the formation of a dystopian totalitarian state where any hint of a difference of opinion is promptly identified and done away with. All possibilities of annulling these Acts must be sought out. The main battle, of course, will have to be fought on the streets.