Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Comment Is Not Free

Believe me, it is not free; but comes with costs, especially if it offends someone in a position of power or influence.

Whoever invented the expression “comment is free”; believe me, it is not free; but comes with costs, especially if it offends someone in a position of power or influence.

Regardless of the platform, a media article, a Facebook post or a public statement, comment is repulsive to those who think they have the means to squash it, even when it is valid. It is more so if the commenter is someone as lowly as a village shopkeeper, or a karinda in the government. The larger the gap in social hierarchy between the commenter and the commented, the bigger the scorn at both the ends. And when it involves a journalist on either side, and often it does, the rage is all the more vicious.

So we have journalists, once again, at their customary duty to protect freedom of expression. They are protesting a draft bill on contempt of court that limits freedom of expression and publication, and gives too much power to judges. The journalists are brothers in arms with lawmakers, lawyers, and civil society groups, including National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

The expanse of the bill, its ambiguities and the discretionary powers left to judges make us wonder if we are a society eager to cherish civil liberties. There are reasons to suspect that the timing of the draft bill is ill-motivated. In recent months, the media’s intense scrutiny of the process of appointing judges in the Supreme Court has once again soured the relations between the press and the court.

This clash may look like a power tussle between our important institutions of democracy, but power without silence is ephemeral. The uproar has frustrated such aspirations, if any, but given rise to fear among advocates of freedom and liberty. And this is a disturbing development for we know fear, more than power, corrupts people. Will we now require thinking twice before we comment on the decisions and conduct of our judiciary?

Comment is not free, if you cannot write a line without fearing that the court may throw you in jail tomorrow because you were citing its wrongdoings or flawed policies. Comment is not free if you cannot have people hear your views.

Cause celebres 
Divided opinions are inherent to a democracy, but they are also the cause of controversies, attracting public attention and criticism that go viral these days. The media as well as active (social) media users and the government, the security sector, and the judiciary are symbiotic to each other. In a system of check and balance, they also countervail each other.

These days, some of them cross the paths of one another more often, and media, or acts of communication—because of their mediating role—become the centrepiece of controversy. Take a case from Saptari. In June, a gentleman there was held in custody for 20 days for questioning the integrity of police in a Facebook comment. He wrote that the police had to be bribed to collect a motorcycle that had been stolen but they presumably found. In April, a civil servant from Lahan was arrested for commenting that Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam “should be shot in his back.”

Similar incidents from last year involved arrests of online journalists for publishing a defamatory story, and of an editor for sharing a news story on Facebook, under a clause on public morality and decency in the Electronic Transaction Act (ETA) 2008 with sweeping jurisdictions.

Contempt of court cases are also becoming more frequent. Last week, a charge against Kantipur journalists was brought on the ground that the newspaper defamed the court and tried to influence the proposed Bill. Earlier, in May, threats of action against Kantipur and for contempt of court were reported in media. Expulsion or barring of journalists from the Supreme Court, and contempt of court case filed against another journalist last year as well as persistent media criticism over political appointment of then Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi must have hardened and embittered the two sides.

Cultural habits 
The main issue is not that these cases are there; in fact there will be more such incidents in the days ahead as these institutions evolve further and become more meticulous in their tasks. Much of the criticism now is rightly focused on the faulty draft Bill as well as the exorbitant ETA and their implications for free speech.

These laws, including the measures to execute them, like our everyday habits and attitudes, reflect ambivalence, ambiguities, and absurdity. The excuse may be: it so happened that the bill was drafted in haste, or that a certain clause was inserted at the last hour without much thought. Better leave some ambiguities in kaaite, or legalese, to dilute clarity and to have more than one way in deciphering its meaning!

Our duplexity reflects in our penchant for relishing gossips, backstabbing, and relentless criticism of others, but never tolerating an iota of disapproval of oneself by others. Even valid and constructive criticism is anathema: How dare you? The world for us is a mutual admiration club.

Our media are vibrant because they are outspoken when it comes to persistently hounding politicians. The latter are fair games in the tradition of journalistic watchdog-ery emphasizing khabardari or vigilance. As public figures, politicians learn to develop thick skins and tolerate insults from the members of the public. Well, apparently, some do not, when it comes to death threats.

And in our clamor for free speech, we shut our eyes to its limits. Media trials are becoming common affecting the judicial process. The gentleman from Saptari was not even talking about his own experience although his comment on police bribery implied that. Should the civil servant from Lahan be dismissed as a jester who was only trying to spice up the conversation with a death threat, and expecting nothing by way of consequence?

Comment is something we do fairly well, something we spew out on social media, in newspaper scribbles of the abstract op-ed types, and sometimes opinion disguised as news. But it is not free. Besides legal and political, it has social, cultural, and personal costs.

The critic transforms into a structural analyst. Personalities are merely substitutes for institutions. Political and ideological tempers need no restraining, arguments require no substantiation. You deny freedom to your opponents, just as John Milton, the original champion of free speech, denied Catholics the same freedom. Ideological intolerance mars our political continuum. Nepali exceptionalism justifies any incongruities: nepalma yestai ho!

Public education 
The more the rulers or state apparatus are conservative the more the radical media become influential. But the traffic police like approach of deterrence—“scare some and control all”—in managing public or media criticism will not help resolve the problem.

Efficiency cannot replace justice and intimidation does not yield moderation or decency. Media traffic, like street traffic, is a complex process. The government decided long ago to let loose free market on Nepalis; it falls on it to educate the public about the dos and donts of media use or free speech. Formulating timely guidelines on social media is imperative but no measure of laws will help if they are not understood or implemented well.

People comment online and offline, oblivious of consequences. Some fume and resort to name-calling and think they are only joking. Correctness is synonymous with ambition. Many young people physically in Kathmandu or Birgunj live in London or New York in Facebook, and they feign leading large multi-nationals or employed at NASA even as youngsters!

Published in Republica, 2 July, 2014