The latest diktat from the Chinese government is that users of microblogging sites like Twitter will have to provide real names to site administrators, even though they can use a different handle. The move is rightly being seen as one more attempt to restrict the freedom of expression on the net.
Critics note that it will enable authorities to easily trace dissenters, and crack down on those who have been writing against high handed measures by the government. The concern becomes especially pertinent in the light of Chinaâ€™s recent crackdown on bloggers which has seen the government arrest scores of bloggers this year alone.
While most of the well known Chinese bloggers go by their own name, making it a strict requirement would definitely militate against freedom of expression. What gives a nobler tinge to this struggle is that in China one does not fight for the freedom for â€˜artisticâ€™ expression of the vaguely scandalous kind, but the wholly worthier goal of freedom to express (mostly dissenting) political opinion.
All of this should make the issue an open and shut case, but, and this is a qualified and hedged but, there are nuances here that one must appreciate. To clarify my nuances and hedges, let me quote from the ever measured and sober New York Times:
“The most striking instance occurred Tuesday, when the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television ordered 34 major satellite television stations to limit themselves to no more than two 90-minute entertainment shows each per week, and collectively 10 nationwide.
They are also being ordered to broadcast two hours of state-approved news every evening and to disregard audience ratings in their programming decisions.”
The first part is unintelligible. If channels are not to show â€˜entertainmentâ€™ what exactly are they supposed to show? As for the second part, I agree to all the measures, except for the â€œstate approvedâ€ part. Who has looked at the breathless breakings of news on the TV here in India without being appalled by the crassness of it? But then what are channels to do when they are mandated to keep showing news 24/7? After all, there are just so many things that are happening at a given point in time. (Actually that is not true.Â There is a lot happening, but part of the problem with the India media, which is my reference point, is that it keeps itself tied to a few formulaic topics which can be counted on your finger tips: political drama, crime, Bollywood, cricket and â€˜businessâ€™. Showing much of anything else would require serious investment in investigative journalism, and the Indian media is simply does not seem willing to make that investment. Investigating journalism also carries political risks. Depending, as the media here does, on political patronage, it can only go so far in its criticism of the establishment.)
So any limit on the extent on news coverage is a good thing, it would at least stop the media from blowing up non issues. It would also hopefully break the link between corporate sponsorships and news coverage. At the same time it is quite appropriate that news organizations should disregard audience ratings, otherwise known here as TRPs.
It is precisely the fight for TRPs that has taken Indian journalism to such lows. The audience loves the immediate and the visceral, it loves the dramas, but serious issues need to be forced upon its attention. Therefore to a measure of disregard would actually be a fine thing.
Censorship of the net is a different matter. There the problem is with the kind of â€˜flashâ€™ fame that crowd psychology bestows. Nowhere is the herd instinct more apparent than on the web. We watch what others have watched, making it more popular, we recommend, to read what others recommend, we post and retweet, we follow the herd. Net is the ultimate number game. This leads to the problem that what is â€˜trendingâ€™ at a particular time, may give a false sense of importance to inane topics, and make rumours the stuff that truth are made of. The anonymity of the net often makes it particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse.
It is actually quite necessary to bring a sense of responsibility into net use by at least making people do, what they do, in their own name.
My problems begin with the word â€œstate approvedâ€. What is state approved is not worth the doc it is typed on. It is not worth your effort of reading, it is not worth commenting. It is simply not worth it. While the frenzy of flash fame still allows for a sort of analysis, if not of anything else, then of frenzy of flash fame, a â€œstate approvedâ€ net will allow for nothing except the deep contempt for the condescension that lies behind the decision.
Good regulations make for good followers, bad ones create rule breakers. So while it is entirely possible to take a positive view of the moves China is making to regulate its media and the internet, if it wants any of it to succeed, it must give up its fascination with â€œstate approvedâ€. That is a bad phrase to use especially in these times when authoritarians and authoritarianism are falling like a house of cards around the world.