Editorials - 13-03-2021

What is worrying is the executive’s idea that users need to be protected against the very media that seek to inform them

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (https://bit.ly/3bGTtGo), notified towards the end of February by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology should not come as a surprise because it is of a piece with the systematic incremental erosion of the freedom of speech and expression that has marked the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The fate, or the final shape, of the notification will depend on the way the two petitions already filed against it in courts in Kerala and Delhi are decided upon. But the more worrying aspect of this clumsily veiled move by the executive to keep the media — particularly the standalone digital news media, which have generally proved more defiant and inconvenient for the government than the mainstream press or television channels — on a leash is the way it invokes and insinuates the idea that the public, or the users, need to be protected against the very media that in fact seek to make them critically informed citizens, thereby making their democracy that much richer and deeper.

A redress mechanism

For all appearances, the overarching intent of this new set of rules is to put in place a grievance redressal mechanism for the end user or consumer of social media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms and the digital news web portals. That, of course, would normally be an unexceptionable public purpose. But in an already vitiated climate of overweening political and religious majoritarianism, where the street tends to (and is often egged on to), whip up and aggressively nurse and drive a sense of outrage or hurt on any and every issue, irrespective of institutional procedures or safeguards, the nature and scope of the bulk of grievances can easily be imagined.

Further, the smaller or medium-sized independent digital news and current affairs portals, which are for the most part struggling to stay afloat irrespective of whether they are newer startups or have been around for a few years, will be the ones hardest hit by this redress requirement. Any criticism of the ruling party or government could trigger an orchestrated avalanche of grievances. The notified rules set out an elaborate time-bound three-tier process whereby each and every such grievance is first handled at the level of the portal itself by its own grievance officer, and if not satisfactorily settled, passes on to the self-regulatory body of the sector or industry, and if yet not resolved, moves further up to an inter-ministerial oversight committee of the central government.

Regulation by the government

The sheer process of such grievance handling can stymie the operations of a relatively smaller digital venture in the news and current affairs space. The process, further, makes a mockery of the concept of self-regulation, with an inter-ministerial committee of government officials in effect becoming an appellate authority over the self-regulatory exercise. This would be self-regulation by the media organisation and the industry at the government’s pleasure; regulation by the government masquerading as self-regulation by the news media entity or industry. What is worse, the notification gives the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting,ad hocemergency powers to block any content the government considers problematic even without such token procedure.

Negation through distortion of the idea of self-regulation is really the nub of the matter, at least as far as the section pertaining to publishers of news and current affairs in the notification is concerned. Real or imagined grievance out there becomes an alibi for this clumsy sleight of hand whereby the government can in effect prescribe, oversee and overrule so-called self-regulation by the publishers. It would be a joke if it did not have such serious implications.

Poses a financial threat

A measure like this, moreover, jeopardises the very sustenance of the already financially straitened and functionally beleaguered digital news media — unless that is the very intention. Monetisation avenues become scarce, and investors and brands run scared because of what they see as political considerations supervening upon business interests and a whimsical media policy regime in constant flux.

What makes this notification seem more diabolic than ham-handed censorship is the buzz around the same time about confabulations between groups of ministers and journalists — some of them proactively furthering the ruling party’s ideology and agenda, some easily pliable, some perhaps unwary and unwittingly roped into the discussions — and the classification of the journalists by the BJP caucus involved in this exercise based on how cosy or distant they are seen to be to the establishment. It then seems to be part of a concerted move by the government to bring the more critical sections of the news media to heel.

Eroding pillars of democracy

The case for organic self-regulation by the news media as against by an external authority or body becomes more focused and urgent in the context of this notification and the many anecdotal symptoms of a censorship mindset we see growing around us. It is important to take a step back and remind ourselves that the fourth estate, or the fourth pillar, is as much a player as the other three pillars — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary — in the separation of powers scheme of our constitutional democracy.

Although the freedom of the press per se is not an explicitly prescribed fundamental right in the Indian Constitution, and is, rather, a derivative right from Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) which give every citizen the right to free speech and expression, and to practise any profession respectively, these freedoms have in practice become constitutive and definitive of the fourth estate in the country. That fourth pillar of democracy must be in a dynamic relationship of checks and balancesvis-à-visthe other three pillars: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. It is a healthy tension among the four pillars that keeps the democratic edifice strong and vibrant.

The fourth estate in India, though, has increasingly been at the receiving end of draconian executive acts, invocations of legislative privilege and judicial intolerance. If the fourth estate is to be treated by the executive as an inconvenience to be sidelined, surely the other pillars, the judiciary and the legislature, lay themselves open to the same fate. Already characterisations of democracy, like the illiberal democracy in Orbán’s Hungary or authoritarian democracy here at home, are intimations of the uncertainties ahead. Surely, the body blow delivered to our democracy by the Emergency of 1975-77 must be, more than a bad memory, a lesson at this conjuncture.

At the risk of sounding tongue in cheek, this notification also begs the question as to why the government should go to such devious lengths to trammel press freedom when there are deadlier weapons in its armoury, including the archaic Sedition law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, which it has shown little reluctance to use against critical voices.

Truth is getting unstuck

The situation harks back to the beginning of 18th century England, when the idea of the press freedom that we take (or now no longer take) for granted was being fought and suffered for, and secured inch by inch. The mindset of the establishment then was on telling display in the observation of Chief Justice John Holt while giving sweeping powers to the authorities to invoke seditious libel: “If men should not be called to account for possessing the people with an ill opinion of the government, no government can subsist; for it is very necessary for every government that the people should have a good opinion of it.”

To this flagrant belief could be traced the origins of truth not being allowed as a legal defence in a case of libel, which had such enormous consequences for truthful journalism. It took a very long time to change that premise and make truth a valid defence against libel. Now, again, truth seems to be coming unstuck as a value. This contentious notification takes it an absurd step further. A blatant measure of government regulation of the news media is sought to be passed off as self-regulation by that same news media. If that is not post-Truth, what is?

Sashi Kumar is Chairman, Asian College of Journalism

As the complicated nature of security across this geography changes, the Asian footprint is expected to only grow

This month, a contingent of the Indian Air Force including fighter aircraft and over 120 personnel is, for the first time, in the midst of a multi-nation exercise hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) named Desert Flag (March 3-27). Other than India and the UAE, Bahrain, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United States are also participating, offering an interesting view for New Delhi of the various geo-political intricacies at play in and around the West Asia region.

Complexities, Asia’s links

West Asia is home to perhaps some of the most complex security conundrums of the modern times. The sixth edition of Desert Flag this year takes place as tensions between Iran and the U.S. peak. Also added into the mix is the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020 between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, a more cordial and joint Arab-Israel dynamic predominantly designed to counter Tehran’s growing influence in the region, as seen through the wars in Syria and Yemen.

While joint exercises in West Asia between Arab states and their western counterparts is common, the 2021 edition’s involvement of contingents from India and South Korea showcases the growing interests of Asian economies. As net importers of crude oil, these Asian economies rely heavily on the West Asian states for their supplies, and, by association, have increased stakes in the safety and security of the region from the perspective of political and economic stability. And more importantly, in the protection of vital sea lanes in areas such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea stretching out into the Arabian Sea and the wider Indian Ocean.

A fading U.S. hold

To put the above in perspective, in April2020, Saudi Arabia was India’s top supplier of oil followed by Iraq. For South Korea, in late 2019, it was also Saudi Arabia as the top supplier as both New Delhi and Seoul hedged their bets and diversified, with Russia and the U.S. entering as strong alternatives. The participation of both India and South Korea in these exercises in the Persian Gulf is reflective of these trends and growing concerns in Asian capitals over an eroding U.S. security blanket in the region. This is highlighted even further by the fact that January 2021 marked the first time since 1985 that the U.S. did not import oil from Riyadh (https://bit.ly/30DziDa), and this reality will be reflective in how Washington DC deals with West Asian politics in the years to come.

Iran and tensions

Amidst these new realities, both India and South Korea have found themselves caught in regional tensions as the pressure on Iran to restart the 2015 nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) increases, which the U.S. unceremoniously exited in 2018 under the indelible American presidency of Donald Trump. Both India and South Korea have faced carbon-copy consequences over the past decade as the West first negotiated with Iran, and later tried to manage the fallout of the JCPOA collapse.

In 2013, an Indian oil tanker namedMT Desh Shantiwas confiscated near the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian forces and taken to the port of Bandar Abbas on the pretext of the ship violating environmental norms. This was also the time when Iran was under sanctions, and looking for oil payments from India, which New Delhi could not complete due to said sanctions. TheDesh Shantiepisode was seen as a pressure tactic by Tehran.

Fast forward to January 2021; Iran confiscated a South Korean tanker,MT Hankuk Chemi, also from near the Strait of Hormuz, lugging the ship to an Iranian port, once again highlighting that the vessel was violating environmental norms. This came at a time when Tehran and Seoul were locked in an argument over billions of dollars’ worth of oil payments frozen due to sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

India’s involvement

The idea of Asian nations having to band together to protect their energy interests in West Asia is not new. Former Indian diplomats have even suggested an idea equitable to an ‘importers OPEC’, or Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by Asian states which today have a much larger stake in West Asia’s oil than the West.

India’s security footprint in West Asia has seen a steady increase, and energy security and safe passage of sea routes are one of the main driving factors. The Indian Navy has made multiple port calls from the UAE and Kuwait to Iran and Qatar in recent years. In 2020, India had also planned its first bilateral naval exercise with Saudi Arabia, which was postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

This trend of an increasing Asian security interest and footprint is expected to only magnify in the years to come as the nature of security in West Asia changes itself. Regional states will become more responsible for their own security, and as Asian economies become stronger stakeholders, their geopolitics will become more visible across this geography.

Kabir Taneja is Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme and Head, West Asia Initiative, Observer Research Foundation

Privileged nations must improve global availability and equitable access of vaccines

A year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has criticised “the many examples of vaccine nationalism and hoarding” in the world. Making available vaccines equitably presents the “greatest moral test of our times”, he added. In spite of exhortations by international organisations and efforts to pool resources in a way that all countries could at the earliest begin inoculating at least a fraction of their most vulnerable, several countries were unable to administer a single dose although vaccines were beginning to be stockpiled since November last. In Africa, only 13 countries, according to the Bloomberg tracker, have begun vaccinating. In contrast, over 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, or got both doses, as has 3% of the EU. The percentages nearly double when accounting for their populations that have got at least one dose, reaching as high as 34% in the U.K.

India is the third biggest vaccinator among countries, having administered about 26 million doses, or about 1.91 doses per 100 people. But it has fully vaccinated only 0.3% of its population. While India has earned laurels for its ‘vaccine diplomacy’, the fact is that there are several public health centres, villages and districts where no vaccines have been administered. Though vaccination in the second phase appears to have picked up, there were only 1.7 million inoculations on Friday evening as opposed to the planned vaccination capacity of 5.4 million. India aims to inoculate at least 250 million with two doses from March-July — or over 3.3 million doses per day. But at best, India has administered 1.8 million doses per day. There is also an apparent “class divide” with the rich and those better informed disproportionately getting vaccinated as compared to the poor. Thus, along with the global inequity in accessing vaccination, India is seeing a version of it play out three months since vaccinations began. The inequality was expected as like many rich countries, the U.S. contracted with many vaccine companies for several times the doses it needed. It was precisely this that had led to concerns of ‘vaccine nationalism’. The pipeline of supply was largely dependent on India and China. The Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech and several other pharma companies are private entities and bound by contracts to the highest bidders, and not necessarily the Indian government. While the reprieve is that more vaccines are in the pipeline, there will always be the concern that the poor, the old and the digitally naive will be shortchanged. The UN and WHO must continue to exert pressure on the privileged nations to improve global availability as well as bear upon countries to improve equitable access within their territory too.

Afghanistan’s leaders have to choose between war and sharing power with Taliban

President Joe Biden’s push for an interim unity government in Afghanistan is a testament to his administration’s grim assessment of the situation in the war-torn country. In a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which was first published by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has proposed a senior-level meeting between the government and the Taliban in Turkey and a multilateral conference of envoys from the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan to discuss a lasting Afghan solution. The peace push comes at a time when the Biden administration is reviewing the U.S.’s Afghan strategy. According to the February 2020 agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw its troops by May 1. The Taliban have warned they would step up fighting targeting the coalition troops should the U.S. fail to pull out by then. The Biden administration is understandably under pressure. There appears to be a consensus in Washington that there is no military solution to the crisis. The U.S. wants to get out of the longest war in its history. But as Mr. Blinken says in the letter, the U.S. worries that if its troops are out without a peace mechanism, the Taliban, which already controls much of the country’s hinterlands, could make “rapid territorial gains”.

The U.S. seeks to stop this happening by proposing an interim “inclusive” government between the warring parties. Further, both sides should hold talks on the future constitutional and governance framework. Regional powers, including India and Pakistan, could play a decisive role in this transition as part of a UN-mandated multiparty peace process. This is a more inclusive approach than what the Trump administration did. Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. held direct talks with the Taliban excluding the Afghan government. And after reaching a deal, the U.S. put pressure on the Afghan government to release prisoners, but failed to get any concessions from the insurgents on reducing violence. Even when Afghan government representatives and the Taliban were holding talks in Doha, Qatar, Afghanistan continued to witness violence. The Biden administration does not seem to have faith in the Doha talks, which, even after months, failed to achieve any breakthrough. After 20 years of war, the Afghan leadership does not have any good options to end the conflict. If the Biden administration decides to stick to the Taliban deal and pull back troops, there is no guarantee that the intra-Afghan talks would hold. The Taliban would rather try to take over the whole country using force. If the government accepts Mr. Biden’s proposal, Afghanistan’s elected leaders will have to share power with the Taliban and agree to amending the Constitution, which means some of the country’s hard-won liberties could be sacrificed. It is a choice between two bad options.