Free Media Versus National Security

Free Media Versus National Security

The growing positive interplay between Opposition parties has resulted in the formation of the I.N.D.I.A alliance.

K C SinghUpdated: Saturday, October 07, 2023, 05:55 PM IST
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NewsClick Logo | File pic

The BJP’s intolerance to criticism has been rising in proportion to its worry over upcoming state elections, the feedback about which is not rosy. The growing positive interplay between Opposition parties has resulted in the formation of the I.N.D.I.A alliance. The government is spewing new proposals like “One-Nation One-Election” or the Women’s Reservation Bill to gain electoral traction after nine years’ anti-incumbency. The jingoistic response to the Canadian government’s charge of Indian official involvement in Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s killing in Canada reflects the same touchiness. Thus elements of the media which are still persisting with independent reporting have been on notice to mellow down criticism.

The immediate factor triggering the Government’s paranoia was first an August 5 report in the New York Times revealing a “lavishly funded campaign” to influence public discourse in India, centred around American millionaire Neville Roy Singham, a supporter of far-left causes. Then the US Global Engagement Centre, an organisation mandated to monitor disinformation campaigns by America’s rivals, released a report on September 28. It warns about a Chinese global information ecosystem to sow disinformation to discredit the US at home and abroad. According to the New York Times, Meta has dismantled 8,000 accounts, pages and groups on its social media platforms Facebook and WhatsApp.

Besides exploiting US-owned social media behemoths, China has reportedly invested in media organisations in the Czech Republic, Australia and Thailand. In Thailand China has used Tencent to acquire control of major news site Sanook. Therefore the Indian government’s concern about manipulation of Indian media organisations or news platforms by China through indirect investment merits investigation.

But should a particular Indian news site be termed as anti-national just because of being funded by a China-linked American millionaire via US intermediaries? According to the Enforcement Directorate the funds transfer to NewsClick has been so traced. But the cardinal principle of criminal law is mens rea or the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing. Furthermore, can critiquing a government’s functioning, permissible under freedom of press, become seditious because the funding is from a China-related entity? These are all questions that need to be debated and examined by courts.

However invoking the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), used against terrorists, seems like overkill. The CPI(Marxist) political party has never hidden its links to China. During the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) in 2015 in China, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury met Chinese President Xi Jinping. They exchanged views about improving Sino-Indian relations. In fact, Yechury speaking at the conference argued that China’s proposed Maritime Silk Route, a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative which India deplores, should converge with India’s historical Maritime Spice Route.

This leads to a diplomatic dilemma. What is the strategy to be adopted when relations between two rising powers and neighbours are strained yet there exist overlapping interests and even convergences? Do entities like CPI(M), a recognised national party now ruling in Kerala, have a role to play in providing back-channel communication or would they also be treated like NewsClick as undermining Indian national security? CPI(M) has in the past provided a similar channel to the communist parties of Nepal when bilateral relations were tense.

The US has a history of right-wing McCarthyism involving the hunting of suspected communist sympathisers by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. His demagogic crusade targeted many amongst Hollywood elite, intellectuals and members of university faculties etc. Is the BJP now empowering its agencies to adopt McCarthyism using the China threat?

While the threat is obvious of China spreading disinformation through surrogates globally, the reaction has to be measured. Unleashing the brute force of Indian investigating agencies harms Indian image as a democracy, already damaged by India’s democratic regression. The agencies, empowered with limitless power to search, arrest and interrogate, tend to make the investigation itself the punishment. The Supreme Court recently ruled that non-cooperation by an accused cannot become the ground for detention and prosecution. Safeguards against self-incrimination are basic to the rule of law.

The Indian dilemma is understandable. A democratic nation when dealing with an autocratic single-party state starts with a disadvantage. Freedoms that its citizens and the media enjoy can in theory be exploited by rivals, as China is allegedly attempting to do globally. But in countering the threat India must not abandon due process and safeguards that are basic to democracies. The failure of McCarthyism in the US proved that paranoia presents a bigger danger than possibly the threat itself.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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