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5

Yesterday when I wrote the article saying that Arun Jaitley sending the notice to the blogger Prashant Panday was a good thing, I came across a couple of immediate condemnations regarding how Barkha Dutt got criticized for the same. It is hardly a new thing for the distinctions between free speech and slander to be erased in an attempt to defend favorites and I find myself in a lonely battle making all kinds of distinctions that perhaps we as a country are not ready for.

This post is not about the law. I'm neither a lawyer nor a judge. This post is about my interest in seeing freedoms upheld as well as accountability. And I think Arun Jaitley sending a notice to Prashant Panday cannot simply be bundled with Barkha Dutt sending notice to Chetan Kunte and one "good" or "bad" be applied to both. I don't think the law pulls such stunts either, considering that we continue to try cases individually.

There is a school of thought that appears to think that if accountability for his words can be expected from Prashant Panday, then why not from Chetan Kunte. Well, I suppose if the issue is of suing for defamation. anyone can send a notice to anyone. In fact, I don't even believe anything bad needs to have been said. If you want to send a notice, your sanity might be under question if you send it without reason, but no one is going to dispute your "right" to send it. So let us get that out of the way. Legally, I suppose both the cases are "equal" and whoever was here to only be reassured of that can quit reading at this point.

That said, I am not sure having an opinion on a person's actions rather than claiming facts is defamation. Which is essentially what Chetan Kunte had done in his article titled "Shoddy Journalism". To quote the beautiful wikileaks who preserved the statement he was forced to publish on the blog, if not the original post, he was specifically taking back the following:

* a lack of ethics, responsibility and professionalism by Ms. Dutt and NDTV Limited;
* that Ms. Dutt and NDTV's reporting at the scene of the Mumbai attacks during November 2008, resulted in jeopardizing the safety and lives of civilians and / or security personnel caught up in and / or involved in defending against the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008;
* that Ms. Dutt was responsible for the death of Indian Servicemen during the Kargil Conflict.

This, being extremely specific quotes in lawereese, I assume came from the notice that told him exactly how he could get rid of the monster threat riding his back  by publishing what he was told.

Now here is the interesting thing. I have no idea how Barkha Dutt and NDTV are certain the terrorists and Pakistan Army did NOT get information that allowed them to target Indian forces from either "Ms Dutt" or "NDTV Limited". It would hardly be the first time criminals used news coverage for information. Even if care was taken, Kunte is unlikely to have known that (nor has any media management to prevent information leaks in initial period been claimed, even in hindsight), so what Kunte published, he still published believing it to be true.

This cannot be called defamation. It is commentary and criticism of security risk. He saw TV and thought he was getting information that was sensitive and wrote that and criticized what he saw as a lack of judgment. I will concede that it is highly unlikely that Barkha Dutt or NDTV *wanted* to jeopardize anyone. But one cannot say what the terrorists used for information or how they interpreted it to declare so confidently that the reporting did not result in intel either.

With this logic, NDTV should not run talk shows that have people claiming that someone is guilty of something at all. This would probably include not criticizing the government, not calling Modi responsible for deaths in Gujarat and God only knows what else. So clearly there is a standard being applied specifically to the hapless blogger that they do not follow themselves. Even standard disclaimers of opinions not belonging to the channel would not make sense, since clearly the channel saw fit to broadcast them to millions of viewers - a call the speaker did not make. And channels officially cross lines too. For sensation (translates to money). For example:

In a far more serious accusation, Afzal Guru's lawyer famously wrote to NDTV:

"Your repeated news bulletins over two days reduced the issue of the hanging of Afzal and his Mercy Petition pending with the President to a very simplistic solution "Show repeatedly the video tape (an unlawful piece of evidence) of the alleged confession of Afzal recorded in police custody as breaking news, convince the viewers that it has brought out the ultimate truth, ask them to send SMS messages to NDTV conveying their opinions about the "—Phansi" (hanging) of Afzal, and then pour out the "—collective opinion" gathered in this manner to pave the way for the prompt hanging of Afzal."What a simple, quick solution of an issue involving the life and death of a citizen!"

This could actually have lost a man his life by mobilizing a lynch mob of opinion that made hanging him a security and political survival requirement rather than the merit of his petition. The tape that was broadcast was set aside by the court. Afzal Guru is on record saying that he was made to say those things by the police under threat to his family. It cannot be called a requirement of reporting, since the news was the petition and not evidence that the court had rejected. Nor could years old footage be called "news". And it was a completely deliberate set of actions aimed at influencing the result. Can't be called "collecting public opinion" if the information fed to them before they state their opinion has been struck down by the court.

Note: This is an example of how defamation with very serious consequences can look like. To have a problem with Afzal Guru, go to an older article and argue there.

To stretch the issue still further, Chetan Kunte was a nobody with a reach of maybe a few hundred people. Off the top of my head, I can think of several people whose words reach millions who have not pulled punches criticizing Barkha Dutt including some far more serious allegations related with what became troll fodder as "Barkhagate". I do not wish to reproduce them here, because the point here is not listing out criticism of Barkha Dutt, only saying that it exists and in my view, Chetan Kunte was an easy target to string up as an example.

The price he paid? His entire blog is gone. Fear. To get into legal confrontation with a top media personality and channel was likely way beyond his reach.

But going beyond all that, to some views on censorship and equality...

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

~ Anatole France

The law may be equal for all, but the very nature of it can be discriminatory and being written by powerful people, is usually more sensitive to their problems and insensitive to the problems of those who were not involved in the writing of the laws. For example, if you had a law against owning more than two cars, you wouldn't have too many poor people violating it.

I think it works on an intellectual level too. In a country where education does not even passingly touch important intellectual skills like logical reasoning or distinguishing between fact and opinion, there are very few with the skills to be compliant with the fine line between criticism and defamation. I would channel Katju here for a minute and claim that less than one percent of people actually have the ability to analyze and articulate themselves with the precision that can express themselves without doing wrong to another with refined nuance.

And the 99% who cannot include highly educated people and politicians too. Which is how rape after rape has people seemingly blaming women for it, when reading their words carefully makes an empathetic person realize that they are raising concerns about the inherent exploitation in the evolving stereotype of modern beauty that has women at risk because of catering to the male gaze in a highly normalized sexual objectification. They have no expression for it beyond describing the clothes, which is too broad and mangles the subject beyond sanity, but they are people who have seen it from close and they understand the danger, which has top policemen, teachers, politicians and parents ignoring all precedents of ridicule to voice it anyway.

It is no different with blogs. Boggers, tweeters... they feel. They write. They may not always have the refinement that is desirable, but in my view, inaccurate expression beats silence by a wide margin. It is primitive, undifferentiated, block like thinking that says all people who don't support X are supporters of Y. It is plain illogical to believe that everyone who agrees with us is noble and there is some evil entity going around paying people to disagree with us. Whatever. It is most certainly insulting to be called a slut for having a political view. At the same time, to make it more than it is - unrefined, clumsy expression - to me is discrimination, because there are few with the life experiences that would have brought them refinement in a world of institutionalized stupidity. To me, targeting the wrongs of their expressions while ignoring the concerns they are voicing is a bit like not hiring a low caste person for his looks or accent.

To expect the same refinement from anyone with an internet connection that frankly journaists don't always achieve in spite of it being a professional requirement, is plain discrimination, though the law will support suing anyone by strict standards. A line comes to mind from some romance nove i read:

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

On the other hand, it is also true that public figures, figures who introduce ideas that disturb, because they are new or cause us to question ourselves, people who take responsibility for collectives and cannot accommodate every interest.... such people also suffer extraordinary hostility expressed as criticism, accusation or slander. And surely they cannot be expected to be superhuman enough to always live thinking about the larger picture and never give in to the simple need to hit back in irritation or defense.

It is not a monolith. I think it is a world of conversations. The more we have, the better it is for us all. The less we attempt to overpower, the more diversity can thrive.

But then, that is my opinion.

It is also my opinion that everyone has the right to act with the freedoms available to them, and if such a freedom means that justice to the wrong experienced to the self needs a notice, so be it.

 

If you were reading with the expectation of "one right answer", sorry, but I don't have one.

3

The Guwahati gang molestation shocked the Nation with the usual monthly fury. How can men behave like animals? Women are not safe anymore and such talk abounded. Lot of moral outrage. In other news, there was a group of people criticizing the NCW team for posing for a picture where they are smiling and look carefree. In still other news, there was a bunch of people passing around an image compiled from Sagarika's tweets on the subject pointing out to how her views changed. I had my usual trolls lampooning me over whatever views of mine offended them. Life went on.

In my view, our online life is a good example and predictor of our offline life. Our minds are the same, our personalities are the same, and our default responses to situations are the same. It is only the medium that has changed, and the actions. One may not be able to molest a woman online, but they sure can jeer, make sexual innuendos, or otherwise bully her. Last week someone wanted me raped for something I said. A couple of months back, someone had said that to Meena Kandasamy and triggered a women's rights signature campaign. Generally, I find that if anyone threatens rape, then people kind of throw disapproval at that person till he changes his words or they get bored. The objection is to the threat of rape, not to the use of threats to try and silence someone.

I am small fry. Some of the most hated/ridiculed men on Twitter are Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Subramanian Swamy, Arnab Goswami and Kapil Sibal for men.  Some of the most hated/ridiculed women on Twitter are Sonia Gandhi, Barkha Dutt, Arundhati Roy, Teesta Setalvad and Sagarika Ghose. It is worth keeping an eye on tweets about these people to see the kind of abuse they get. Abuse for men is related with judgments of their competence or crimes as per whatever the abuser imagines. On the other hand, abuse women get routinely slips into the sexual. "Spreads her legs for XYZ" "Should be raped" "prostitute" etc. The other thing I notice is that the abuse is rarely over anything these people did to individuals speaking, but by being themselves. They are also highly popular figures with large followings appreciating what they do.

In my view, the idea that someone did something offensive giving the right to anyone to attack them is very IT Rulesish. I am not speaking of criticism, but of deliberate character assassinations that go beyond objections to the actions or stands of a person to vilify the person him/herself. So, calling Modi a mass murderer makes perfect sense to people, because they think he is guilty of sanctioning the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. Whether he actually killed anyone or not. Incidentally, the same people will not call Rajiv Gandhi a mass murder, if sanction is the reason. This is not to excuse crimes by anyone including Modi, but pointing out the permission we give ourselves to attack another at will.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never kill me.

This above line is a lie. Physical violence happens with blows and weapons, but mental violence happens with words, attitudes and destroying reputations. Destroyed reputations are the reasons for a lot of real damage ranging from depression and destroyed self-esteem to honor killings and suicides. The hatred I see online would likely not see this as a minus at all, but call it a confirmation of guilt. Because the intent is to cause damage to that person to whatever extent they can.

I have taken a strong stand against domestic violence and alcoholism and often tweet real life incidents from my own life as well as others I come across, because I think these things need spoken about. I have often got replies like "her husband doesn't beat her enough" or "publicizing domestic problems to gain sympathy" etc. While the first seems openly offensive, the second is criticism aimed at devaluing my right to speak about my life however I want. It also makes the suggestion that a domestic violence victim getting sympathy is somehow inappropriate. I am extraordinarily resilient when it comes to trouble, but attitudes like this in society are a very common part of suicides from harassment, where the victim gets victimized for being a victim or drawing attention to herself.

The same society then looks at a body dangling from a ceiling and says sorrowfully, "Why didn't he say anything?"

What do we do when he did say something? Call it inappropriate and his personal problem. We are a society intolerant of mistakes, weaknesses and imperfections. These usually invite attacks, because we fear our own vulnerability. We don't accept ourselves, so it makes react with intolerance to others. We band together with those with "faults" like ours and be a mob denying that the trait is a fault at all. We mob together to attack our traits that we deny. We wipe out anything that will force us to look good and hard at ourselves unless denied.

Now let us look at a third thing. The popcorn gallery. Countless incidents have demonstrated that the crowd that gathers watching a wrong happen either support the abuser, or stay quiet. What happens online? If you see someone call Sonia Gandhi a whore on Twitter? The chances are high that the tweet will get a lot of RTs and those who disagree will simply ignore the people. If one person attacks another unfairly on Twitter, the chances are high that most people following both will pretend not to see anything. At most, they will tell them not to fight. The chances that an abuser online will be stopped by a crowd are the same as those in real life. Slim to none.

I have a simple policy of refusing to participate in discussions attacking people. I also never block people. I don't need to. refusals work well. Most people no longer tag me while insulting someone. It is not impossible to refuse to allow attacks to happen in the space you influence. It is about intent. I do it in real life too. It is not enough.

This, in my view mental violence destroying the space to live at all in the country, because disagreement becomes a question of who can overpower the other. This is happening in real life too. People with power can invade the rights of others and the popcorn gallery is used to it. The surprise is if the less powerful resist. If instead of getting molested, the girl had fought back and escaped, the video would be a characterless girl on the streets of Guwahati who brazenly attacked people and ran away. For a wrong against her to be objected to, she first has to suffer "enough". The wrong being done in itself wouldn't matter. Because we are a mindset of throwing crumbs of support if a plight seems horrible enough. We are not about values and ethics and individual rights regardless of caste, creed and gender.

The mass molestation in Guwahati got a lot of attention, but not the fact that the girl was an Adivasi girl. My hunch is because she got more publicity than Adivasi girls get normally. Media probably didn't want to jinx that. The reason may not be true, but it is true that the girl is an adivasi and most news haven't bothered to report that. Also, good in another view, I think, because a girl outside a pub gets more defenders than the adivasi girl stripped in some village. Like there are people who think only prostitutes go to pubs, there are others who find the rights of innocent pub going girls more touching than those of adivasis. The good old PLU preference is very strong when it comes to doling out approval for rights of people.

All in all, it is high time we accept that we are living in a world we create. We are the victim, we are the molesters, we are the popcorn gallery.

2

While I have not written about Bhanwari devi here, I have been following her story for a while now. One of the main reasons I have not written is that I depend on media for an idea of the situation, and the media is a hall of mirrors on this one, so my information could not be trusted to have a realistic picture.

However, one story did catch my eye. NDTV ran a report "Bhanwari Devi was determined to live a life less ordinary", which you can read here.

The report describes Bhanwari Devi's life and appears to create a backgrounder for her murder, except that it seems to deliberately paint a sordid character of a person born in poverty who it seems commits this crime of wanting to go beyond her circumstances. It describes her music videos and entry into the circles of the political powers and mentions her as a person who liked the good things in life (I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't - though goals may vary).

There is a subtle buildup of character as a person who paid attention to her looks "few bottles of perfume, some blunted lipstick" on dressing table (not comb, for example) and establishes her misuse of her clout at work - or rather rarely "showing up" for work except to sign register for attendance and collect salary.

Then it establishes her as a blackmailer around the time she disappeared and projects her husband as this brave person valiantly trying to get the murderer to justice and struggling with the "impossible task of shielding their two children" - erm... if she was all that useless, surely he was used to it by now?

It makes so many assumptions about who Bhanwari was, or what she thought or wanted, for example "Bhanwari Devi wanted more than the small towns she was born or married into" - I dare say this is true of the journalist as well, if she would.... say quit writing for NDTV if the Guardian asked her to report for them? It is certainly true of me. I would love to have a huge house in Mumbai, servants to do all the work. If wanting is a sin, show me the person who can throw the first stone.

The report ends with "The circumstances of her death - and it is increasingly unlikely that her story will end any other way - she was determined to make less ordinary" - a line that is true for any dead woman... and man, if you replace the feminine pronouns with masculine.

What is notable about this report is that it reports less facts and more the reporter's imagination of what and who Bhanwari was, and it is abundantly clear that the reporter sees her as a condemnable person.

It would have been extremely easy to write a compassionate report - heck check out some of the reporting of women from Afghan prisons, check out news stories of bona fide prostitutes - it isn't content that makes a story sordid, but the eye of the beholder. Compassion is a way of being, not a multiple choice option that some deserve and others don't.

Of course, there is the other speculation that NDTV as a whole is in bed with the Congress. If not officially, then a sympathetic affinity - for want of a better word. The victim being set up to be stripped of compassion in this story is a victim of Congress ministers.

Pankaj Pachauri recently (about two months after this story was printed) became the communications advisor in the PMO. Not implying that this was deliberate at all, but saying that there were communication lines open and favorable with one side of the issue, while the other was difficult to identify with. There is a natural tendency to discredit what shows them in bad light (most of our newspapers are guilty of this, though this instance is NDTV) - so it may be an unconscious political or professional influence. It can simply be a woman low on compassion and high on moral judgment too - though this becomes difficult to believe seeing as a journalist and editor both cleared it. Simply saying that many lines converge here. Unlike the journalist, I will not report my imagination as fact, simply point out the various coincidences.

Most people are not looking at the extraordinary silence around this story and character assassinations such as this serve to muddy water further by encouraging more people to dismiss the victim as not important or not of good character - not someone who was wronged - not said directly, but the overall feel of the article. I am not the only one saying this. Barkha Dutt got solidly trolled by people who normally don't do such things too over this, in an attempt to draw attention to how the character of a murder victim was selectively reported to make her look bad.

Many people were outraged over this report that speaks less about the injustice done to her and more about how she was not such a great person anyway - as though justice for murder is less important if the person is of low character or something.

I had tweeted several times to NDTV to withdraw their report. It got taken up by several people. Many drew Barkha Dutt's attention personally to this report - which I think is a bit unfair on her, since she can't be expected to defend the sins of everyone, just because she is within reach, but it is also a matter of trying to reach who they could and who they thought might take notice and correct this slander. I don't know if and what she said on the issue, but I do admit that this put her in a tough spot.

Unfortunately, nothing happened. The report is alive and well, and it turns out, a fellow tweep, Sudhir Kumar had formally written to NDTV complaining about the report, and as happens in organizations determined not to learn - the person to attend the complaint seems to be the person complained about (by criticizing the story she edited and approved), who simply said she was right. The report was asserted as appropriate and necessary or whatever. Reproducing the two emails below. Understand what you will.

=====================================
From Sudhir Kumar to NDTV

Hello,

Can you guide me on who the point person is for this article on NDTV website, on Bhanwari Devi?

Bhanwari was determined to live a life less ordinary
http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/bhanwari-devi-was-determined-to-live-a-life-less-ordinary-149781

This article is so full of insinuations and doesn't match any standards of decency. For example - "She liked dressing", "She came only to collect her salary" - how fair is it to write such stuff about a person who is not alive?

How fair is to interview her 7 year old son too? Will they like it, when they see this article? A more detailed critique by a blogger is here ( please read it - she is not a troll nor is the language abusive)

http://centreright.in/2012/01/badge-of-shame/#.Tw0HCdRKpfo

I'd appreciate if one of you replies to me, advising how this can be taken forward.

Regards,
Sudhir

Hyderabad

==========================================

The Reply from the Editor who edited the report the journalist filed and approved for publication:

Dear Sir: Thank you for taking the time to offer this critique.

The reporter who filed the story has been given a byline which is clearly mentioned. I edited the story.

As with all our reports, the information was based on facts. There are no insinuations.

Our report preceded the India Today cover story and many many others which followed a similar line of investigation.

While nobody can overlook the tragedy of Bhanwari Devi’s death, her life and death – as are now abundantly clear – came wrapped in all sorts of complexities which make a character study of her personality not just preferable but essential.

Suparna Singh

 

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The CBI chargesheet in the case of her murder calls her a social climber with big ambitions. As though she died of it.