The concept of censorship revolves around the facets of restricting and limiting free speech, supressing public communication and putting a curb on transparent exchange of information. While the parameters for the aforementioned elements may vary from one organisation to the other, censorship is mostly carried out by government or private institutions with a view of filtering out any sort of harmful, sensitive or questionable material that can be rendered as inconvenient for the general public. Among the innumerable purposes and reasons behind censorship, the first and foremost factor that comes to light, is the need for preventing public instability and political upheaval. It is utmost importance for us to understand that a sound democracy can only function effectively if the Fundamental Rights and Duties co-exist harmoniously, because one’sfundamental right is an implied duty on the other person to respect and abide by the former.
What needs to be understood is that these rights aren’t absolute in nature and are enforceable to the extent of certain restrictions, which when not adhered to, often result in an uncontrollable clash between the two. It is the prevention of these clashes that censorship aims to achieve in the first place and this is done by supressing any sort of content spoken, written or illustrated which has the potential of enticing an individual or general public at large. Now the degree to which this control ought to be exerted is what determines the effect of censorship on a particular demography. Thus it is fair to say that censorship only tries to create a positive balance by doing the aforementioned, but what cannot be side-lined is the fact that sometimes it has the potential to take over a negative approach as well. When this happens, the former goals and objectives take a backseat as people then start opposing censorship exercised by the concerned agencies which altogether leads to massive public uproar and great social destruction. This usually happens when a government body tries to suppress the state of
affairs actually prevailing or when news agencies aren’t allowed to transparently showcase the real content. Now the real reason behind such a conduct, could stem to political aspirations and vote bank dynamics, but what needs to be focused is that the outcome of all this results in the unwanted upheaval which was aimed to be prevented in the first place.
In the landmark judgement of K.A. Abbas v. Union of India1, the question of pre censorship
of cinematographic films was raised w.r.t the fundamental right as guaranteed under Article 19
1 K.A. Abbas v. Union of India 1971 AIR 481
of the Indian Constitution. The issues that lay before the court revolved around the following
• Pre-censorship is violative of freedom of speech and expression
• Even if a legitimate cause of action exists, the principles on which such restraint can be
exercised ought to be very specific, leaving no scope of ambiguity or arbitrariness.
Taking the aforementioned points into consideration, Chief Justice Hidayatullah declared censorship of films to be a reasonable restriction within the ambit of Article 19, thereby rendering it to be Constitutionally valid. In the recent 2020 judgement of Amit Sahni v. Commissioner of Police and ors. the Hon’ble Supreme Court emphasised the importance of balancing this technology driven era and stated,
“We live in the age of technology and the internet where social movements around the world have swiftly integrated digital connectivity into their toolkit. Technology, however, in a near paradoxical manner, works to both empower digitally fuelled movements and at the same time, contributes to their apparent weaknesses. The ability to scale up quickly, for example, using digital infrastructure has empowered movements to embrace their often-leaderless aspirations and evade usual restrictions of censorship; however, the flip side to this is that social media channels are often fraught with danger and can lead to the creation of highly polarised environments, which often see parallel conversations running with no constructive outcome evident”.
In the landmark judgement of Ajay Goswami v Union of India, the court highlighted Article 19 and also emphasised upon the need of protecting children from obscene content. It was stated that only after giving due regard to the contemporary mores and moral standards can one determine as to what falls within the ambit of obscenity. “The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities. Many cultures have produced laws to define what is 2 Amit Sahni v. Commissioner of Police and ors. AIR 2020 SC 4704 , Ajay Goswami v Union of India AIR 2007 SC 493 considered to be obscene, and censorship is often used to try to suppress or control materials that are obscene under these definitions.”
Thus evident as it is, the guiding spirit behind censorship is the protection of general public from getting exposed to content that is not fit to be circulated or shared in the open. However what needs to be highlighted is the fact that this cannot and shouldn’t stand in contravention to the Fundamental Rights granted by the Constitution. Thus it’s important to note that rights are enforceable and so all content is also accessible, albeit with certain restrictions. And going along the same line of thought, when censorship is discussed w.r.t to social media, that is where the conflict and confusion lies.
Over the decades, mankind has witnessed a massive and rapid shift towards the arena of digital advancement such that mode of communication has drastically shifted from physical to virtual, especially considering the present day situation. In such times, people from every nook and corner rely upon the information being shared by reputed agencies and organisations such as News Companies, Social Networking sites etc. in order to maintain the trust bestowed upon these agencies by the people, it is of utmost importance that only the true and relevant news reached them with utmost transparency in the process. However sad as it may seem, people today don’t portray that sort of trust in the news agencies because of the sole reason of them supressing true information. Thus people have no resort but to turn to social media as they have reasons to believe that the true and actual picture would come to light by virtue of the content being shared online. And as ironic as it may seem, while people are gradually accepting news agencies showing supressed and diverted information, they cannot tolerate the same for social Media as they affiliate political linkage and pressure to the former.
Thus when people rely upon social media, it is extremely important to serve them right and fair such that their interests are not given a backseat and the general public welfare is also maintained. Thisis where the true challenge for social media lies. If they implement censorship, the users would think of social media to be the same as paid media. If they don’t implement censorship, then the unquantifiable free speech could cause great social upheaval as there would be no bounds or restrictions on whatever people say, share or show. Therefore it becomes extremely important for the social media networks to strike a middle ground such that a perfect balance is maintained between information exchange and social disruption. This can only be done by setting specific parameters and then signifying as to what amounts to obscene, disgraceful, hurtful, sensitive etc. These parameters should be set in such a way that the information being shared neither gets corrupt nor restricted and in no way leads to any sort of clash among people.
When people thrive to excel in the digital age, having access to internet becomes a prime requirement and no more remains a luxury. This safe and easy access to enormous amount of information, in addition to the official sources leads to a high inflow of thoughts, opinions and criticisms in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner. It is this influx of information which may sometimes prove to be at odds with what the government wishes to share, thereby giving them all the required reasons to exercise censorship on Social Media. For instance, China imposes censorship on social media to the greatest possible extent as the government is aware of the fact that Globally recognised social networks could publish damaging and sensitive information about its functioning. In 2019, Saudi Arabia alarmed Netflix, claiming its comedy series “Patriot Act,” starring Hasan Minhaj, to be violative of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law in place there. Thus censorship can be seen as something which has as many merits as it has demerits. Reduction of impact of hate speech, protecting children from obscene and unhealthy environment, enhancing security and reducing conflict are some of the pros of censorship. But that being said by restricting content, it not only poses a hindrance in finding out the truth but also creates a hollow/ false narrative, thereby allowing it to serve as the apparent truth.
Prohibiting independence of media and transparency in public outreach systems, this lack of information can also adversely affect the economy, and simultaneously can also lead to the societal isolation of a specific group of people.
At the onset, the real picture w.r.t Social Media’s Censorship may not be as ideal as it ought to be. But what needs to be emphasised and focused is the fact that as long as content is supressed to prevent social upheaval and maintain peace, it is all accepted and adhered to considering the reasonable standard of prudence. However, the same wouldn’t stand true if the intention of exercising censorship is politically driven and is only disguised in the form of public wellbeing. If such a thing happens, then social media would also be tagged as paid media as then there would be no difference between what has always been shown on televisions compared to what one would expect to find on Social Media.
Censorship In China Turns Social Media into tool of repression,
5 Netflix’s Bow to Saudi Censors Comes at a Cost to Free Speech,
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