Wednesday, September 25, 2013

India: Right to information and privacy ‘two sides of the same coin’

India's Right to Information act is being challenged by questions of privacy protection

In September 2013, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about the inviolable right to privacy that citizens of India must enjoy, at the annual event of the Central Information Commission (CIC), a body constituted by India’s Right to Information Act, 2005.

Both the Act and the CIC have empowered ordinary citizens to submit applications requesting information from government bodies, injecting a new phase of transparency in an infamously opaque bureaucracy. In fact, the RTI Act has been born of, and has encouraged, large RTI ‘movements’, that have exposed layers of corruption in numerous schemes across various government departments.
For citizens, the fact that a government official has to release information regarding budgets, forms, decisions and other facets of public governance has led to the belief that unchecked corruption might finally simmer down, and that they are not longer helpless against the system.

However, as the RTI movement has matured over the last decade, serious questions of privacy protection have also started making their way into public discourse. The Act itself excludes a number of security and police agencies from having to divulge any information, and private companies and NGOs do not fall under the Act.

However, political parties that do fall under the act are furiously trying to legislate their way out from under the scanner. In fact, this move, supported by the ruling government that helped bring in the RTI has attracted a lot of criticism and well earned scepticism from the public. In a report on the matter, one of India’s biggest English news channels, NDTV, wrote, “The government decided to amend the law after political parties opposed the Central Information Commission’s order in June that six political parties including the Congress and the BJP will be under the RTI as they were substantially funded by public money. This would mean political parties would have to disclose campaign funding or how members voted during a secret ballot.” Indicative of the mistrust between government and the public, the report was called ‘Divided on everything else, political parties unite against RTI Act.’
Therefore, when the conversation turns to a conflict between the right to information and privacy, in India, it can often become muddled. It can seem that wrongdoers might attempt to hide behind the excuse of ‘privacy’. However, there is no escaping that protecting individual privacy is a genuine concern.

Many countries across the world that have enacted national RTI Acts also have privacy laws that carefully spell out the limits to which information about individuals can be disclosed. In general, information about personal life, sometimes including medical information, is exempt from RTI. Should names be revealed from all official documents, are all court proceedings public? And finally, do some people necessarily lose some privacy because of a ‘public interest’ test?

The World Bank Institute released a paper that describes RTI and privacy as “two sides of the same coin, essential human rights in modern information society.” It also goes on to add that, “privacy laws can be used to obtain information in the absence of RTI laws and RTI can be used to enhance privacy by revealing abuses,” and that both have been designed for accountability.

India does not have a privacy law in place right now, although what should be in the law has attracted considerable debate. Therefore, the contours of privacy in the RTI gambit have resulted from various decisions and court orders given over the years. For example, in 2011, the then chief information commissioner of the CIC informed India’s Reserve Bank of India that it had to reveal information, even if it meant public confidence in the institution might be adversely affected. And, as recently as early September 2012, the Mumbai High Court ruled that “disclosure of personal information in respect of service record, income tax returns and assets of an individual is illegal unless it is necessary in larger public interest.” This judgement protected the individual against any disclosure that had nothing to do with public interest, but instead caused unwarranted invasion of privacy.

There have also been reports that some RTI applications are filed only to be a nuisance, with cases of RTI being used to blackmail public officials, with the threat of burying them under paperwork. In April 2013, one applicant was fined for filing over 100 applications.

Moving ahead, President Mukherjee’s speech indicated that public authorities should be proactive and voluntarily put information in the public domain for the use of citizens, effectively inculcating a culture of transparency from the beginning.

However, until that happens, one can assume that the citizen will most certainly have to rely on the RTI for full disclosure about its government’s activity, and the government will have to be wary of those using RTI applications for ulterior purposes. Most importantly, the individual right to privacy should not be lost in this paper war, between the two sides of the same coin.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In search of the "strong female lead"

The recent women-as-goddesses domestic abuse posters got me thinking about notions of strong and weak... how we view them, why, and who really came up with them. It also reminded me about a scribble I wrote a while ago... but this one is about TV characters...

“Which TV show are you watching?” has become a wildly popular and intense discussion point with most of my friends – online and offline – in the recent years. The question is second only to the much more satisfying TV show exchange, complete with hard drives, pen drives and some soul searching questions about which season of which show to delete to make room for the new ones! Admittedly, our focus is mainly on American series, however,over the last few months, I found myself questioning my ability to watch those shows meant for “women.”

It started rather innocently, with a friend suggesting I watch this new show ‘Mistresses’ which, she admitted, was not fantastic but time-pass. I suppose being a 30-something woman; I must be the target audience for this show, which is another one of those meant-for-women shows capitalizing on the Sex and the City formula. Yes, the formula. Four women with different personalities, all embroiled in some complicated relationship drama and extremely different but challenging jobs who have all the time in the world to meet for coffee/drinks to endlessly discuss their personal lives. You can tweak it, you can make it younger – as done by the creator of the hit-show ‘Girls’ or make it older – as done by ‘Mistresses’ but it ultimately remains the same. Yet somehow, after the second episode, I could not bear to watch more.

Instead, I found myself getting attracted to action-dramas with strong female leads. The phenomenal ‘Orphan Black’, a show about cloning,not only features a superbly complex storyline but features women (but really, one actor) who dons the hats of a number of women working together to uncover a scientific whodunit. The other show I have enjoyed very much has been the Canadian, ‘Continuum’ which features an ass-kicking super cop from the future stuck in 2013, trying to stop the course of history from changing her (future)world. And while I was feeling rather satisfied with good stories and good characters, I came across the haunting mini-series, ‘Top of the Lake’ which features Elizabeth Moss (Peggy of Mad Men) as a police officer solving a rape case, while dealing her own history of having being gang raped as a teenager.

Perhaps the fact that I was attracted more to the crime fighting women on TV than the “lets talk about relationships” ladies of primetime, led me to wonder what it said about me. Was I getting attracted to what I perceived to be ‘empowered’ characters only? Were the girly shows simply not enough for me? What does this say about the current messaging in the West about‘empowered’ women on TV?

Then something unexpectedly phenomenal happened. I came across one of those special galleries on a website that had put together a list of TV’s 15 most empowered and least empowered women characters. The most empowered had some predictable ones, which most TV watchers will recognize; Daenarys Targayren of Game of Thrones, Nikita of Nikita, Emily Thorne of Revenge, Olivia Pope of Scandal and so on. In the least empowered list came the Marnie and Hannah of Girls, Haley Dunphy of Modern Family, the Liars of Pretty Little Liars and Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones. It was the inclusion of the last name – Sansa Stark – in the least empowered list that cause an outrage explosion in the comments thread and made for extremely interesting reading. Commenters were disgusted that the list faulted a teenage girl for being held captive by a powerful family against her will, and further criticized her for not being able to fight against them. Most of those who argued against her inclusion in the list pointed out that Sansa’s character is a victim of great abuse in the show,and therefore, should not be blamed for being a victim. Some further argued that teen show Pretty Little Liars also centers around the bullying of teenage girls and to that end, they have been surviving the best they can. The conversation turned into what it means to be empowered in the first place, and whether characters like Olivia Pope who are engrossed in sordid affairs with married men are really empowered. Ultimately, the entire article was accused of being misogynistic, victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

However, another very interesting point came about, one that has been raised and debated in many other forums. The shape and form of‘empowered’ female characters on TV (and movies) have morphed over the years.In an overwhelming number of stories with ‘strong’ female characters, physical strength has become a necessary attribute. Blogger JS Andrijeski wrote an extremely interesting post exploring this phenomenon, “I don’t believe these female characters. I don’t believe that character X is good at fixing cars as well as being a crack shot with an automatic rifle while looking stunning in a cocktail dress and bossing the men around at the police precinct where she works.” In fact, other posts exploring the idea of ‘strong’ women characters which are attempting to move away from the simpering-neurotic-klutzy-mess-leading-lady routine have fallen into their own trap of so-good-at-everything-its-unreal, or simply put, almost every action character Angelina Jolie has ever played! In fact, in a rather surprising development, when posters of Pixar’s cartoon ‘Brave’ showed the title character without her bow and arrow, there was criticism which led to the weapon being shown in all future posters.

So what is empowerment? Are people like me falling into traps of watching shows about super cops and thinking these are strong female characters? And as a result, are others watching female characters struggle in non-violent ways (such as Sansa or the Liars) and conversely, finding them rather disempowered? And what about the endless characters whose focus on sex and relationships have made them icons for many others looking for a show “for women”. Does that necessarily mean they are weaker characters?

I started looking into the traits that really define strong female characters, and as expected, neither her co-dependent relationship with her friends nor the ability to be a black-belt astro physicist topped the list. One article put it well as it said – ‘Female characters should be characters first and female second. The fact that they’re women shouldn’t get in the way of their other traits.’

Ultimately, as it always does, the female character is truly empowered by the real motivation of the writer. If it is to give the boys their fantasy female, or give the girls a heightened version of every problem they could ever have, the characters ring untrue. Some shows make women so strong that they become unreal. But if the character has a story, a reason for existing, which is above and beyond the fact that are they simply female, then we are making headway.

Growing up, I watched Buffy endlessly,wanted to be C.J. Craig of the West Wing, and laughed at every terrible joke Lucille Bluth made on Arrested Development. They weren’t just strong women, but they were women with strong stories. Ultimately, that is really what makes the difference.  This balance is also why Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife and Peggy Olsen of Mad Men are topping my new list. And imagine my surprise to realize that there is neither martial arts nor a tight group of girlfriends in either show!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Murder leads to a print news blackout in India

Threats of violence halt the distribution of newspapers in the Indian state of Manipur
In the aftermath of a murder of a delivery driver and discovery of explosive devices in his van, a small underground group took responsibility, but news editors refused to carry the group’s statement, leading to a print blackout in Manipur.

Newspapers in the state reported on 19 Aug that the cold-blooded killing of Okram Gyanendro had led to a road blockade of the Imphal-Moreh highway in protest. The Imphal-Moreh Road Transporters’ Union and the All Manipur Road Transport Drivers and Motor Workers’ Union strongly condemned the murder and called for a 13 hour general strike across the state as the story gained more attention.

As reported by the Indian Express, in the aftermath of the murder, a small underground group took responsibility for the attack. However, senior editors refused to publish the group’s statement, as they believed this small group could not have carried off the attack and only sought to gain legitimacy through media attention. By August 28th, a letter from the group had been issued to hawkers who distribute newspapers in Manipur, to halt distribution, which was ignored. On September 1st, the All Manipur Newspaper Sales and Distributors Association received a phone call saying that if the hawkers did not stop distributing newspapers, they would be shot dead.

Caught between the ongoing violent rivalry between insurgent groups in Manipur, newspaper  distribution was stopped. The All Manipur Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) staged a protest along with the Editors’ Forum and the All Manipur Newspaper Sales and Distribution Association to protest the threats issued to media workers and the freedom of the press in Manipur. Some of the complaints that were made were that insurgent groups force newspapers to carry news, whether it is true or not, and even force them to carry press releases without any changes.  The chief minister of Manipur was approached, and asked to put in safety measures for media persons.

However, with the backdrop of the newspaper distribution ban, the editors of major newspapers decided to distribute their papers on their own. On September 7, it was reported that “editors of the leading newspapers published from Imphal created history on Saturday morning by selling their newspaper copies in the streets of Imphal city.”

In the meantime, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has issued a statement of support, stating that, “we call on the state government in Manipur and the security agencies of the Indian government deployed in the state, to respond to the urgent calls from All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AWMJU) that conditions be secured for safeguarding journalists, rights and the public right to know.” And the chairman of India’s Press Council of India also requested the Chief Minister of Manipur to ensure that newspapers can function normally.

By 8th September, hawkers had decided to resume work in Manipur, in light of appeals from various civil society organizations and also for the sake of their livelihood.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

India’s media watchdogs discuss need for universal regulation

The driving question for the Indian media has been if it is able and willing to regulate itself

In an unprecedented move, the heads of India’s three major media regulators, all retired judges, sat on a single platform with the current Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari, to discuss the way forward for media regulation.

The Indian media industry, including both information and general entertainment channels, are often in the news for violations of industry ethics codes. Entertainment channels often air inappropriate content and exceed the number of advertising minutes per hour as prescribed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. News channels, too, have been in the limelight because of the paid news phenomenon, which has been the subject of a Parliament report, and their complicated ownership structures that belie a deep connection between business and politicians.

While around 100 of India’s 800 channels broadcast news, only about half of them formally come under any industry association, although they account for 80% of viewership. The larger industry associations are the News Broadcasting Standards Association (NBSA), the Broadcast Contents Complaints Council (BCCC) and the Press Council of India (PCI).

The panel explored whether an independent statutory body is needed to act as regulator – opened up an interesting discussion.  Justice Markandey Katju, Chairman, PCI, Justice A.P. Shah, Chairperson, BCCC, Justice R.V. Raveendran, Chairperson, NBSA, shared the stage with Tewari.

The Indian media industry itself has been unequivocal in stating that it is capable of self regulation.  However, the heads of the currently regulatory bodies pointed out that despite the current system of self regulation, many channels simply opt out of voluntary membership of these associations if they do not want to follows its rules or pay fines. It is clear that regulators in India are of the view that even if self-regulation is the way forward, it cannot be voluntary. The lack of professionalism in journalism, ‘trials by media’, and the urban slant of national news channels have led to skewed and uneven growth in the Indian media industry.

The panel was divided by questions over the exact form self-regulation should take in the future. While some dominant voices such as Katju’s believed that media persons are best suited to regulate their peers, others felt this structure only hurts the regulators’ credibility. However, Katju also suggested that there be only one body to regulate all media, unlike the current system. Others backed a statutory self-regulating body to replace the current system.

A few essential points emerged as consensus – the regulator should have a real power to punish and fine; adopt global standards; enforce universal membership.

There was also a call to the industry to not hide behind a faulty ratings system as an excuse to broadcast lower quality content. In fact, the Tewari made an appeal for the industry to no longer stand in the way of reforming India’s system of television ratings system, which the government believes will help create an alternative business model. Tewari also added that while the regulatory bodies are currently concentrating on television programming, however, a new or reformed regulatory body needs to keep pace with technological changes, especially the internet. The ministry has publicly said it would prefer a model of self-regulation rather than have the government step in.

In the end, there was a call for editors and owners of media houses not to confuse their duties to the citizens and shareholders.

What is clear is that Indian media, by its own admission, has entered a phase where even much of the industry has come to realize that some amount of universal regulation is needed to weed out much of the malpractice in the industry. However, in reforming business practices, including ownership (such as cross media ownership, as reported by Index) or curbing paid news, it is essential that freedom of expression is not trampled.

A new line of thought has been slowly emerging in India: that the media freedoms allowed by constitutional guarantee extends to the content of the news and entertainment programming, but not to the illegal and monopolistic manner in which the media industry itself operates. It is inevitable that with the proliferation of the internet and complete digitisation of cable services, regulatory bodies will have a bigger job on their hands.

Some commentators feel this means an independent statutory body to regulate the media – like the very effective Election Commission of India – is needed, and it is expected that a private member’s bill will be introduced in Parliament in the next session.