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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

FOE- Who Will Guard The Guardians?



With volumes having been spoken about Freedom of Expression in the past few days, its difficult to write about it without a wee bit of apprehension. Has everything that’s to be said on the subject already been said? Why bother adding to the terabytes of characters jostling for cyberspace propagating different points of view on the subject. But then, a few more kilobytes won’t make a difference, and at least I would get to exercise my own FOE. Will attempt to do so without going into the issues already discussed threadbare, but restricting it to personal experience over the past few days.I will start with the conclusion I have drawn first, and then go on to explain how and why I arrived at it. And that is – people who espouse the cause of FOE are no different from those who shout for lynching of someone because of what they said. This was driven home forcefully to me on social media over the last couple of days.

In the first instance, I expressed my opinion about the political dispensation that has prevailed in the country since independence. My view was that it was also ‘colonial rule’. The rigor of 140 characters imposed by twitter prevented me from expanding – that it may not have been political colonialism, but it certainly was ideological and economic. But before I knew it, I got a highly derogatory reply from someone who is (as I found out later on googling her) supposed to be an established journalist who has worked with several leading media houses. Reading my tweet, she had already slotted me as a semi-literate ‘sanghi bhakt’ from (what she seemed to consider) some downmarket Hindi medium school. Since she had asked, I told her where I had been educated, and the antecedents of my alma mater. She retorted by accusing me of lying and impersonation, but must have soon realized the veracity of my credentials. So she changed track and started threatening to send me to jail for stalking and sexual harassment. That was when my response to her caught the imagination of the twitterati, and it started getting re-tweeted and replied to with amazing speed. Having painted herself in a corner, and with the word spreading like the proverbial wildfire on twitter, she resorted to blocking me (and as I found out later, everyone else who retweeted my tweet).

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The second instance did not involve me directly, but someone (possibly because of the visibility I had received in the above mentioned exchange) tagged me in an ongoing conversation between a senior journalist from a leading news channel and some serving and retired army officers. From what I could make out, the discussion related to a post on the channels website which described the two martyrs in the recently concluded Pampore encounter as JNU alumni. The officers were taking objection to this, as the affiliation of NDA alumni with JNU is a mere technicality – though we get a JNU degree, almost all of us have never even set foot on the campus itself. 

After a bit of back and forth, the journalist in question apparently stated intimidating one of the respondents, threatening to report him to the army authorities for his presence on social media despite being in service. He even tagged the official handle of Indian Army, claiming that the officer concerned was ‘accusing him of lying’ and being ‘insulting to journalists’. Subsequently, he sent the officer a Direct Message asking for his rank, name and unit, once again threatening to report him to none less than the Chief of Army Staff – a threat I have subsequently learnt that he has carried out.

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This, to me, was objectionable at several levels.

The journalist implied that because the officer was serving, he did not have Freedom of Expression on social media. As someone who reports regularly on defence matters (and, I must add, is respected for his reportage), he should have known that this is not the case. Army officers have the same freedom as any other citizen, except for the fact that they are not allowed to post / comment upon any operational / service related matter, or post pictures in uniform. There is no law or army order stopping him from expressing his views about his alma mater, or his opinion about journalists, even it is not a very high one. 

Besides, having found his views objectionable, the journalist threatened to report him to the army authorities. He could do that because the person on the other side was from a disciplined force, and both knew that even if he was not really at fault, such a complaint was likely to cause trouble for him coming from a senior journalist whom the organisation would like to keep on their right side. Had the same incident involved, say, a young JNU student, would the journalist’s response have been same? Probably not, since such a threat would be inconsequential. 

I view both the above cited instances as wilful attempts at suppression of someone’s Freedom of Expression by using unfair intimidation. While soldiers entrusted with securing the country’s borders, journalists are the ones supposed to be fighting for Freedom of Expression. And they have been vocal in doing so for the JNU students who are currently under national scrutiny. Yet, when they are directly affected, as in the above two instances, there seems to be no walking the talk. In the course of their work, journalists get to interact and build relationships with people at the highest levels. Yet that should not lead them to treat everyone else with contempt.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” shouldn’t this apply to soldiers and journalists alike. And as regards the young officer exercising his freedom of expression, I can only hope that someone in the authorities read this and see the incident for what it is, rather than throwing the book at him just to appease a journalist.

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