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In 1975 Indira Gandhi declared a state of national emergency in India due to “internal disturbances caused by a Foreign Hand.” (She meant the CIA.)
It is widely believed that she actually declared The Emergency (ever since capitalized in India, like The War) because she had just been found guilty by the Supreme Court of using state machinery for electioneering, and she didn’t know what the personal or political consequences of that would be. Anyway, declare it she did and a wide range of civil liberties were suspended. More than 100,000 people were incarcerated as political prisoners over the next two years and there was a very murky forcible sterilization program implemented in parts of North India. In 1977, Indira Gandhi ended The Emergency, released all political prisoners, and called a general election in which her party (the Indian National Congress) was trounced and she lost her own seat.
The Janata Party, the coalition that won the election, managed to maintain their Parliamentary majority till 1980 when internal differences overcame them. They were forced to call an election, Indira Gandhi and the Congress were voted back into power, and the country slipped back into a stupor for the next few years.
My late father was a journalist who genuinely supported Indira Gandhi. During The Emergency, his star rose. He was a regular on Door Darshan (state-owned television) and the newspaper where he worked (privately owned by the Birlas, a very prominent family of industrialists) was happy to publish his political columns.
That changed rather sharply in 1977, when Door Darshan stopped calling, and the paper continued to employ him but stopped publishing his work (an increasingly pointed hint that he was, due to his circumstances, unable to take). The following two years were unpleasant for my family. Nobody arrested or tortured my father but he was harassed and bullied at work, and all of us were harassed at home by anonymous letters and threatening late-night phone calls. (I guess we were doxed before the internet.)
As we were listening to the results come in for the 1980 election, and it became apparent that Indira Gandhi would be baaaaack, the phone rang. It was, I guess predictably, Door Darshan. Would my father care to come in the next day to be a talking head? As it happened, he did not care to do so and slammed the phone down but that’s my abiding memory of the 1980 election.
Now there were plenty of Government orders to the media during The Emergency (cover this, don’t cover that, censor that story) but I’m pretty certain that nobody in the elected Government actually told the bureaucrats who ran Door Darshan when to call my father, when to stop calling him, and when to call him again. Similarly, nobody in Government told the Birlas to publish his work, or to stop publishing it, or to start publishing it again (which they did).
Nobody in Government had to make that call for these things to happen. They were done proactively to please the powers that be. It was the curating communication platform access equivalent of self-censorship. Like self-censorship, it was more efficient for the Government than crude censorship itself. And while censorship is an overt control of expression, proactively curating access to a communications platform is voluntary — in terms of the private sector, it’s hard to even argue that there’s a case to answer. It was the Birla’s own damn paper, after all. It was entirely up to them whom to publish and when and why. Right?
Arguably, it becomes murkier because of the role the media plays in forming national cultures and the national consensus. I absolutely believe that private companies have the right to do what they believe is in their own best interest (within the law), but I am not completely sure that this is always healthy for societies’ political cultures. In fact, I think that it can be profoundly bad for them.
Please take a moment, if you reside in the Blessed West, to congratulate yourself that you live in a country where overt censorship is largely limited to times of war. This is a Good Thing (even if times of war are increasingly vaguely defined: are we at war with Al Qaida and ISIS? Maybe? I don’t really know.)
But please also consider the role of self-censorship, and control of access to communications platforms, by privately owned media companies. With the move away from print media and even from network news, there are suddenly a whole lot more players involved — banning Milo Yiannopoulos or Laura Loomer from Twitter or Maffick Media from Facebook is more than irritating, hilarious, infuriating, or well-deserved (depending on who you are and what you think of them), it’s something that shapes the national conversation and therefore the national consensus.
As I said before, I really do believe that private companies have a right to take decisions which they believe are in their own best interests however they define them (advertising revenue, access to decision makers in the legislature, or just plain ideological beliefs). That is their absolute right and it strikes me as truly delusional when people act as if access to Twitter or Facebook (leave aside working at CNN) is a right rather than a commercial arrangement that involves two parties.
At the same time, access to these things has a huge impact on far more than private companies’ outcomes — it increasingly forms the culture and consensus of the country and (in these times) a linguistic sphere. I do find it problematic that this level of power resides in the hands of a few people who cannot be held to account for more than their companies’ bottom lines.
Any words of wisdom on how it can be resolved, Ricochet, or am I doomed to be tormented by this conundrum?Published in