Control. Damn. Delete

27 Aug,2021


By Ranjona Banerji


Ranjona BanerjiYahoo has shut down all its news sites in India. The government’s new FDI laws in the digital media meant Yahoo owner Verizon had to change its ownership patterns to no more than 26 % foreign investment. However, according to news reports, Verizon has been unsuccessful since November 2020 to get the government to approve its ownership changes.


You could look at this as a sort of technical hitch in operating in India (“ease of business”?), you could do several gleeful jumps that Indian pride had been fulfilled and no foreigner was going to control Indian news, or you could take a cold hard look at how the dissemination of news in India was being controlled in overt and covert ways.


Here she goes again, you might think to yourself, blaming India’s most patriotic government. But news is not what makes you happy, what you want to know, what makes you proud and what fulfils your ideas of self-glory. News is everything, good, bad, ugly and mostly ugly. The more news sources you can access, the wider the range of news at your disposal for you to make informed choices. The more news sources you do access, the less of an impact fake news can have on you.


And here is the crux of the matter. Let’s say for the sake of argument that all governments want to control the flow and composition of the news so that they can keep their citizens, subjects, whatever in darkness and ignorance, making them easier to manage. Control has been an essential component of a “successful” ruler through human history. In ancient times, it was most apparent through religious power – keep religious books away from believers so that they cannot think for themselves or question anything. Since kingly power flowed from religion, both the priestly and ruling classes were satisfied. The printing press and democracy severely hampered this age-old method of control of information.


Since that evil invention of a printing press and with the advent of democracy and with that the birth of journalism and mass media, this hoary plan of domination got severely hampered. The lynchpin of every successful fascist ruler has always been propaganda and media control. A most unlikely ally in recent times has been social media. The internet which was supposed to make information free and easy to access has also allowed misinformation to become even easier to access.


It is always worthwhile to go back to the Cambridge Analytica story to remind oneself of how easy it is to manipulate the minds of millions and to get manipulated.


To get back to the beginning, the shutdown of Yahoo News means that readers have lost one more source of news. They have that much less to depend on. They are pushed that much further towards India’s many open propaganda outlets and the many that are by compulsion or fear turning into propaganda outlets.


The threats faced by journalists has increased in the past few years, and the numbers who have been killed, arrested, threatened, harassed for doing their jobs have also gone up. We add a new name to that list: Sristhi Jatav, who works for the Dalit Times, a news website. This young reporter was arrested by the Delhi Police for covering the demolition of the Dhobi Ghat slum. Jatav was later released but ask yourself why she should have been arrested at all. Every small incident like this racks up the dangers for journalists in India.

This week, the works of two women Dalit writers, Bama and Sukirtharini, and Mahasweta Devi’s well-known short story Draupadi have been dropped by Delhi University. One reason is that the head of the Oversight Committee, a Mr Pandit, does not believe in casteism. How much more Orwellian can you get. The other is that sentiments of the police are hurt by Mahasweta Devi’s seminal work about a tribal woman gangraped at a police station. This explanation when coupled with increasing media control tells you how much our freedoms are under threat. Welcome to the burning of the books.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia every Tuesday and Friday. Her  views here are personal


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