Of late, India has seen many instances where citizens have been pulled up by the police for posting opinions on social networking websites. The basis for such draconian action lies in the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 (IT Act). The language of the law is vague, which results in its “misapplication”, as defenders of the IT Act put it. On several occasions, individuals have been targeted for posting views that criticize or raise questions for powerful public figures and political organizations.
The IT Act is even more pernicious, given the state of the traditional media. India seems to have an independent, thriving media, but on closer evaluation, it becomes clear that the media is compromised in its independence.
In India, the government is one of the largest advertisers. Data from the government of India’s directorate of audio and visual publicity shows that for the year 2009-2010, over Rs.130 crore of taxpayer money was spent by the Union government on advertising. Almost three-quarters of this amount went to the five largest English and Hindi language dailies, and the rest was distributed between several regional language newspapers, which are particularly dependent on government advertising.
Vineet Jain, owner of India’s largest media conglomerate Times Group which publishes the widely-read daily The Times of India, remarked candidly in an interview to The New Yorker that his company was not in the newspaper business, but in the advertising business. The industry structure is such that traditional media businesses rely heavily on advertising to subsidize content creation—the price charged to consumers is very low, and no media business dares to raise these prices in a highly competitive market.
For media barons like Jain, getting advertisements is key to profitability—and the Indian government is a major advertising client.
What kind of independence does this imply for the fourth estate of India’s democracy? Central and state governments in India are known to use the stick of advertising spends to silence critical journalism. Recently, the editor-in-chief of prominent Mumbai newspaper Daily News & Analysis Aditya Sinha recounted how government advertising to his paper had been withdrawn, and he received hints from the Union information and broadcasting ministry in Delhi that this was being done because his newspaper had taken a line considered to be too critical. The state government of Bihar has brazenly used advertising spends to control local media with frightening effect—there are others too guilty of such arm-twisting.
In this morbid scenario, the Internet as a new media platform stands out as a beacon of independence and transparency. Internet users aren’t looking for government ads.
It is even more disconcerting that several leading Indian journalists have asked that the Internet be censored. They complain that social media discourse can become vicious. But this is a specious argument—like established business incumbents, they want to protect their turf from innovation that could irreversibly change the rules of their industry. The openness of the Internet doesn’t allow a few to control and direct the public narrative, and that’s irksome to those few.
India is a young nation. Internet freedom is vital not just for digital innovation, but to support the wholesome evolution of democracy itself. At the recently concluded World Economic Forum in India where I participated as a Global Shaper, there was a session titled “Thriving press, stifling Internet” featuring India’s Union minister for communications and information technology Kapil Sibal. I asked Sibal how he viewed the government’s influence on the press through advertising and whether he thought Internet freedom should be supported because it isn’t subject to such influence.
Sibal at first scoffed, with eloquence, at the suggestion. Madhu Trehan, founding editor of leading newsweekly India Today and a driving force behind the website Newslaundry.com, stood out as the only panellist who engaged the minister in a spirited debate, challenging his views on the IT Act and the media’s freedom.
On being pressed to comment on the influence of government advertising on India’s press, the minister politely declined to respond. In his closing remarks, Sibal mentioned how a government representative from Baku, Azerbaijan, had commended him for press freedom in India. The minister reaffirmed that perhaps no media anywhere in the world was as free as the media in India. He said the IT Act was being “wrongly enforced”.
Freedom House, a Washington DC-based think tank, ranks India 80 out of 197 nations in its annual study on press freedom worldwide. It’s also notable that Azerbaijan, whose government representative commended Sibal, ranks 172 in the same list, where totalitarian North Korea comes in last.
Comparisons are relative—perhaps a North Korean government representative would commend someone from Azerbaijan for having press freedom.
Press freedom and democracy go hand in hand. It’s up to Indians to decide whether they aspire to have a political system like Azerbaijan and North Korea, or a freer, democratic system like in Finland, Germany and the US, all of whom are also rated very highly on press freedom. The powers-that-be in India may take this lightly, but Indian citizens should take Internet freedom very seriously, because Internet freedom enables press freedom and strengthens democracy.
Rajeev Mantri is a venture capitalist, writer and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community.