Debunking vs. prior restraint

The reductionist role of pre-censorship heavily undermines free speech and the core values of democracy

February 08, 2021 12:58 am | Updated 01:12 am IST

Since two notorious terms — post-truth and fake news — wormed their way into our daily lives, almost everyone has a theory on how to confront the malaise they represent. Journalists often blame social media platforms for amplification of untruths that rupture our democratic fabric. Agents of propaganda see an alarmist tendency among journalists when they insist on values such as verification, accuracy and fairness.

Three issues fail to get their due when it comes to understanding the crucial difference between defending free speech and becoming an apologist for hate speech. One, free speech remains a public good as long as it does not cause harm and contribute to violence and the targeting of those who are marginalised and less powerful. It is perverse to invoke the rules of free speech to defend belligerent utterances that promote bigotry, hatred and undermine democratic values. The second is the role of algorithm-driven dissemination of harmful content, where metrics have seemingly replaced the idea of editorial judgment before putting out any information into the public domain. The third concern is the active and passive role of the judiciary in not defending Article 19 of the Constitution both in spirit and in word, which is creating a new sense of the ‘chilling effect’.

Many decades ago, former Supreme Court judge V. R. Krishna Iyer made a pithy observation, “The law barks at all but bites only the poor, the powerless, the illiterate, the ignorant.” Today, we have reached a situation where the law has even stopped barking against the powerful, especially the executive. How can one explain the frequent Internet shutdowns in many parts of India? Those who want to know more about the gravity of Internet shutdowns in India can access the website to get a comprehensive idea of how the Indian executive arm is perpetuating a twin, contradictory, and often conflicting trajectory when it comes to digital access. On one hand, there is an emphasis on Digital India and a paperless environment, where even the Union Budget is brought to Parliament in a tablet; students are expected not only to take classes, but also exams online. On the other hand, access to the digital space itself has been reduced to a throw of the dice.

AHA statement

One of the respected academic associations of the world, the American Historical Association (AHA), which was established in 1884, has pointed out the inherent contradictions in the approach of the Indian government. On February 5, it issued a statement against a recent policy guideline of the Centre that mandates obtaining prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs if academics want to convene virtual international conferences, seminars, or training sessions on subjects that are “clearly related to India’s internal matters”.

The AHA statement said: “Because of the pandemic, many scholarly exchanges that in normal times would involve foreign travel now take place online. This new policy therefore is likely to affect a wide range of scholarly exchanges that are critical to the free international expression of ideas. By monitoring and potentially censoring or cancelling the virtual and online communications of scholars in India, the Ministry of Education threatens the very foundation of those exchanges. The policy puts Indian scholars at a disadvantage in ongoing discussions among scholars in all disciplines, including history.”

In this ironic reality, where there is a loud emphasis that all transactions — from literary to economics, from seeking judicial intervention to academic pursuits — be made digital, there is a deafening silence about the digital-access barrier. Pre-emptive strike is a military idea and it would be ruinous to bring its elements to a democratic space, where mediating contending ideas is essential to uphold fundamental rights and the norms of a civilised society.

News ombudsmen are wary of endorsing prior restraint, a term used to explain pre-censorship. Their apprehensions about the reductionist role of prior restraint have been vindicated not only with arbitrary Internet shutdowns and executive orders that insist on prior permissions, but also by the issue of tackling fake news.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that “debunking was more effective than labeling, emphasizing the power of feedback in boosting memory.” Hence, prior restraint in any form — be it governmental permissions to hold a symposium, or tagging an item for its questionable content — contributes to a democratic deficit.

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