(Published in Sify.com, on November 29, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/how-closely-is-big-brother-watching-us-news-columns-ml3ntQhbbji.html)
Until a few months ago, I never quite understood what it must be like to live in a country where journalists had to work under strict censorship rules, where emails were monitored, phones tapped, Google restricted, Twitter tracked, and offenders jailed.
We, in India, had the freedom to speak up about things we didn’t like. We could ask politicians on Twitter whether they had Swiss bank accounts, we could rage against the nation at prime time on news channels every day, we could write whatever we wanted in columns (well, as long as we didn’t get on the wrong side of the religious), we could draw cartoons, we could mock people in the newspapers. We didn’t need to create a Twitter equivalent, we didn’t need to censor ourselves, we didn’t need to find code words.
But over the past year, I find I can’t be thankful for the freedoms I took for granted anymore. When cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for sedition, the hashtag ‘Emergency 2012’ trended for days on Twitter. All of us wrote our columns, people held up placards, the government shrugged, and continued clamping down on free speech.
No one wants to be threatened. No one wants to be sued. But does one even foresee that one can be arrested for an off-the-cuff remark made on Facebook or Twitter, in a democracy that prides itself on its economic progress?
Earlier in November, an industrialist from Pondicherry, Ravi Srinivasan, was arrested for posting an “offensive” tweet questioning Karti Chidambaram’s finances. He had alleged that Karti had made more money than Robert Vadra. Police wanted remand for two weeks, but Ravi was granted bail. Karti, who has studied law himself, says on his website that he is the co-founder of an online public opinion forum. But, clearly, certain opinions are too “offensive” to be aired.
Following the death of Bal Thackeray, two 21-year-olds – Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan – were arrested for, respectively, saying and agreeing that Mumbai shouldn’t have shut down. Though the policemen who arrested the girls have been suspended, and the local magistrate who granted them bail on a bond of Rs 15,000 has been transferred, the charges against the girls have not been dropped. Maharashtra Home Minister R R Patil has said senior police officials would decide whether to drop the charges. No matter what their Facebook privacy settings were, surely airing one’s views doesn’t warrant arrest?
Before their case has left the front pages, we find out a 19-year-old, Sunil Vishwakarma, was “questioned” – not arrested – by police, after workers from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena gathered outside his house, saying he had posted “abusive” and “vulgar” comments against their President Raj Thackeray on Facebook, insulting the MNS leader and Marathi people, “including women”. There are no details of the comments yet, but within hours, police said the account was fake. They were able to verify that because Sunil hadn’t accessed his own account since last Monday.
Just how flimsy is that reasoning? What would have happened if he had been as active on Facebook as most people his age – and older – are?
What has come to be known as ‘The IT Act, 2008’ has so many clauses that are open to interpretation that it’s hard to figure out its ambit. It allows for imprisonment up to three years, and a fine, for “disseminating” material that is “grossly offensive”, “has menacing character”, or is false, aimed at causing “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult”. Honestly, how many Facebook posts don’t cause, at the very least, annoyance?
It would also mean that, had Anna Hazare declared on his Facebook or Twitter page that alcoholics should be publicly flogged, he would have fulfilled all of those conditions – causing inconvenience, danger, annoyance, obstruction and insult to the alcoholics.
I read about a week ago that Chinese authorities had arrested blogger Zhai Xiaobing over a joke on Twitter, posted on November 5, which suggested the Communist Party congress could make a good setting for Final Destination 6.
Successive tweets read:
“#SpoilerTweet# #EnterAtYourPeril# Final Destination 6 to arrive soon.”
“The Great Hall of the People suddenly collapses, only seven of more than 2,000 people inside survive.”
“Later, one-by-one the survivors die in strange ways. Is it the game of God, or the Devil venting his wrath?”
That could send Zhai to prison for up to five years.
Now, I don’t find myself feeling sorry so much as scared.
Because, as the crackdown on social media continues in India, George Orwell’s Thoughtcrime doesn’t seem so fictional anymore.