December 14, 2013
The second open consultation was organised by the Free Speech Hub at the Hoot, Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Milia Islamia and the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi. It focused on digital journalism. Participants were asked to reflect on Chapter 4 of the Mapping the Digital Media in India report.
The consultation was divided into three panels: funding, regulation and surveillance, and the practice of digital journalism. Each panelist spoke for 10-15 minutes, and each panel was followed by a discussion.
Session 1: Funding Digital Journalism
Alam Srinivas, Fellow of the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Milia Islamia
The first session opened with a talk by Alam Srinivas, author of the Digital Journalism Chapter in the Mapping the Digital Media in India report. In the context of the digital media, he discussed the funding sources for media houses, and corporatization of media.
After outlining the different kinds of funding sources (mergers and acquisitions, angel investors, private equity firms and venture capitalists), Alam said that shareholding is not always the best indicator of control by funders. Even when funding entities’ shareholding indicates very limited control, there are other potential tools for retaining control. These could include contractual terms that mandate a seat on the board of directors with veto powers on any matter above Rs. 5 crore, or drag and tag along rights, and the convertibility of debt into equity. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) proposal to limit the percentage of investment in relation to cross-ownership in media houses will have limited effect in the face of contractual terms like drag-along or tag-along rights.
Alam illustrated his argument with the example of Anil Ambani stating that he did not own TV18 despite his indirect influence over TV18. Ambani’s influence over TV18 was a large loan given via a trust, to Raghav Bahl’s personal company which further utilized the funds to buy a stake in TV18.
Investment structures therefore allow corporations clandestine and indirect influence over media houses that may not be apparent whilst glancing at ownership of the media houses. This is a significant cause for concern since these private contracts are confidential, offering the public no knowledge or access to actual control enabled by the contracts. Therefore instead of focusing purely on the rising stakes of corporations in media houses, it is necessary to also focus on the other methods employed by corporations to achieve control.
Later, in response to a question, Alam said that there is no obligation to disclose the terms of a private contract. Before the creation of such disclosure obligations, it will be important to discuss whether the media should be treated as a special category for such disclosures. It will also be important to ensure that the nature of these disclosures evolves over time.
Shubhranshu Choudhary, CGNet Swara
Shubhranshu Choudhary discussed his vision of a self-funded communication system that combines radio, mobile and internet technologies to maximize access and reach across the digital divide. He pointed out that the concentration of control of the media in the hands of a few is a structural problem which can be bypassed using collaborative technology to drive a self-sufficient system. This collaborative use of technology will enable every person using an ordinary phone to be a reporter/ journalist. He believes that it is possible to achieve this using cheap and economical models, and that such a system will allow for the effective working of a diverse democratic framework.
Current laws and policies do however interfere with setting up such a system. The use of radio is restricted in many ways, and short wave radio stations cannot be set up. This and other policies need to be changed if the egalitarian communication system with broad access can be put in place.
In a discussion about the cost of interconnected technology, Subhranshu said that linking mobile and internet to radio is critical due to the radio’s potential of overcoming the distance limitation that tends to exist in India. He also pointed out that this model would be cheap if the radio station used a community radio model. According to him, these projects will reach their real potential only if all three technologies radio, internet and mobile are used in combination.
While developing this theme of using a combination of technology to reach across the digital divide, Subhranshu also suggested that public switched telephone network (PSTN) in combination with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) can be used to help the poor take advantage of VOIP. The rich are easily able to use VOIP technology since they have access to the internet, but the poor can also use this technology to reduce the costs of calls if VOIP technology as far as geographically possible, after which a switch to PSTN technology is made to reach the non urban recipient device, which may also not be technology sophisticated enough to receive a VOIP call directly.
Nikhil Pahwa, MediaNama
Nikhil Pahwa shared his experience of running his digital media enterprise Medianama, including the challenges he has faced and foresees in the digital media industry.
The web advertising market is dominated by large companies like Google, small websites have a lot of trouble persuading advertisers, or rather ad agencies, to pay on time. A high amount of internet traffic comes from search queries involving mobile phones, and companies like Google control much of the traffic. About 60% of online advertising revenue goes to Google, and it has much more bargaining power in terms of getting ad agencies to pay than a smaller website has. Smaller online businesses tend not to receive payments on time and the irregular cash flow can make it difficult for them to function. Although platforms like Google creates easier accessibility to consumers for web-based publishers, it also means that publishers are more dependant on Google, making its position within this space even stronger. Google increases fragmentation of the online publishing market. The structure of payment for websites is also heavily influenced by the platforms through which users tend to reach them. The focus of the industry is now on the cost per view model, particularly for the business to consumer sector. Unfortunately, this particular revenue model has led to publishers mixing content and advertisements. This hurts the media since it remains unclear whether people visit sites for news or just because of the title. Publishers can also be affected by Google policies, such as its adoption of the Quality Deserves Freshness model in its search algorithm, which reduces the revenue generated by archival content.
Nikhil underscored the relevance of the big market players like Google in setting up the standards within the industry. For example, the Internet and Mobile Association of India has been in negotiations with the Advertising Agencies Association of India to fix on a uniform 120 day payment period, but this has not been successful primarily because without the support of big industry players like Google such negotiations remain weak. He touched upon the various ethical issues which arise when dealing with advertisers directly, in terms of interview requests and gifts. This can come in various forms, For example, the public relations division of a internally famous electronics company took Indian tech bloggers for one of its conference, and then asked them to write about the good reasons that readers should buy its devices.
Nikhil discussed the separation of the sales and editorial teams at a media houses and said that a chinese well between the two is desirable since conflating the two roles is likely to give rise to ethical issues. He pointed out however that separation of the two roles is not always possible for a company with limited resources, and suggested that a code of conduct might be useful for organisations that cannot absorb the costs of the this separation.
Throughout his session, Nikhil maintained that the most crucial aspect of running a media house was to convert readers into customers. He believes that the mature customer would easily discern between a good and not-so-good media house and this would ensure sustainability of the media house.
During the discussion session the panel discussed the relationship between the traditional and digital media. One of the panelists felt that most traditional media did not invest enough in linking, aggregating and curating content, and was going to suffer as a result. The distinction between journalists and content-writers was also highlighted as one of the biggest challenges to be tackled by traditional businesses, and particularly because this distinction matters to people who value quality.
In a discussion of the particular kinds of funding models, one of panelists highlighted the need for transparency of funding especially in the context of digital journalism since funding often tends to come from a few sources. This problematic if one considers that there is a perception of neutrality attached to the media. Others felt that it is possible to diversify funding although they conceded that the scope of funding depends on the nature of monetized base of the digital media house.
The future of page views and content depends on giants like Google in the industry. However, it industry participants need to expand the breadth of their coverage and sell better to maintain their audience.
Session II: Regulation and Surveillance
Bhairav Acharya, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore
Bhairav discussed surveillance in post-independence India, with a focus on enforcement of the right to privacy. He pointed out that the right to privacy has many dimensions, including privacy of body, property, locational privacy and privacy of communication. The standard of protection might vary for each dimension. He was of the opinion that effectively, there is no right to privacy in India. While there have been judgments in the past, none of them have resulted in the enforcement of the right to privacy. In this context, he compared the right to privacy to the right to education in India where there was little enforcement until the legislation (the Right to Education Act) was passed, and the constitution was amended to specifically reflect this right. Although many rely on the activist role of the Supreme Court of India to protect the right to privacy, Bhairav discussed the history of judicial activism and argued that the court is now retreating from this role. He discussed the history of India’s efforts at intercepting communication to support his argument that there is no actual right to privacy in India.
The foundations of interception of communication in India lie in the Post Office Act. The Rajiv Gandhi made an attempt to expand its interception powers by amending the legislation, and providing for more intrusive interception of communication. President Zail Singh however successfully prevented the amendment from taking place by not giving it his assent after Parliament has passed it. Although the amendment to the Post Office Act was successfully prevented, the Telegraph Act (under which phone calls are intercepted) was actually amended along similar lines. To the initial conditions for intercepting phone calls (“on the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of the public safety”), were added the following conditions: the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence.
Privileged communication can be used to establish guilt so unfettered interception of communication is dangerous. The history of interception might have a relationship with the state’s efforts to control the media from the time of Nehru’s government and the creation of the Press Council of India. Bhairav argued that the state still feels that it has a legitimate role in interfering and shaping the role of media and this has become further complicated due to the federal nature of our polity.
Although there is no immediate solution that the law offers, for interception of communication, the first step towards a solution is to understand and acknowledge that we have no effective right to privacy.
Prasanto Roy, technology journalist and editorial advisor at CyberMedia
Prasanto discussed how technology enables surveillance of the digital media. He emphasised the very real possibility of abuse of surveillance powers, and misuse of information acquired through surveillance. He illustrated this with an example of an income tax inquiry, after which one of the government employees involved realised from the meta data collected in the investigation that the surveillance subject used to frequently call a woman who was not his wife, late at night. The subject was then blackmailed with this information, and this stopped only after intervention by the government department.
Prasanto also discussed the use of meta data for surveillance of the media. Surveillance affects journalists’ protection of their sources directly. Since a digital trail is created at every stage of communication online, it is relatively easy to acquire meta data, analyse it and figure out the source of the email. He emphasised that if care is not taken to delete digital footprint, meta data could be easily used to divulge hidden details. He stated that before the Central Monitoring System was formed, agencies would receive tons of request for meta data disclosures.
Prasanto also pointed out that it is not only the Government which is interested in the digital meta data. Corporations also have incentives to investigate journalists, for example to identify their sources and locate a whistleblower within their corporation. He argued that surveillance is becoming a ‘cottage industry’ in India and with industry and law enforcement agencies often incentivised to cooperate with each other. He wondered whether the general public acceptance of intrusive surveillance is a result of terrorist attacks like 9/11 and 26/11.
While discussing the degree to which technology enables surveillance, Prasanto pointed out that it is even possible to switch on microphones on phones remotely, and that it is well known that the video cameras on laptops may also be switched on remotes. Given the lack of structure and safeguards in India, little is known about how law enforcement agencies use new surveillance technology.
In view of this Prasanto suggested that journalists to take steps to cover the digital tracks, to protect their sources: He said that it is necessary to proceed with caution with anything which has meta data, to use third party email accounts, and wherever possible use the technique of saving drafts rather than sending emails to reduce meta data generated. He also suggested the use of Virtual Private Networks and encrypted email services like Lavabit.
Saikat Dutta, Editor (National Security) of Hindustan Times
Saikat discussed the impact of surveillance on journalism in India. He began with sharing his experience of being under surveillance by Indian intelligence agencies: although he was able to use his contacts to find out who was following him, there was no legal remedy available to him against the illegal surveillance. The combination of this surveillance and the Intelligence Bureau’s access to Saikat’s meta data (which was apparent to him from his conversations with joint directors of the agency) led to a chilling effect on his ability to speak to sources and get information for his journalism. Separately, being under surveillance portrayed him as a suspect in the eyes of the law, and let to his to being treated almost as if he is guilty until proven innocent. There was little he could do about the illegal surveillance or use of his metadata, since even fellow journalists did not want to confront the police and intelligence agencies about these issues, for fear of antagonising and jeapordising their working relationship.
It is not just access to sources of news that is affected by surveillance. Saikat pointed out that illegal surveillance of journalists can also result in manipulation of the journalists through the kind of information which is shared with them what journalists report can be manipulated, both subtly and directly. There is little discussion of this in India. Similarly, there is also very little discussion about the agencies which are empowered to perform surveillance. There are nine such agencies, of which four are not governed by any law that makes them transparent or accountable. The origins of these agencies lies in executive orders. For example, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) was first formed under a telegram sent from the Viceroy of India at the time of the formation of the Congress Party in India, and the the Defence Base Research Organisation (which has been purchasing sensitive surveillance equipment) was formed after the Kargil war in 1999. These agencies do not operate under any statutes, and there is no clear delineation of their powers, duties and obligations.. Saikat also pointed out that such surveillance will be facilitated greatly by the the Unique Identification Authority of India, although it is being set up under a welfarist rubric.
Surveillance has a huge impact on journalism since journalists are expected to explore areas which average citizen would not ordinarily explore. The government is very apprehensive about the possibilities of digital journalism. The fact that anyone can post pictures and videos on twitter in real time without any checks or balances makes the government very nervous. There is an increasing number of presentations on social media at the Director General of Police’s conference. Saikat argued that the evils attributed to the social media by the government are often unjustified, using the North Eastern exodus as an example. He pointed out that the panic did not spread because of the social media or text messages, but was in fact exacerbated by the preparation of the special trains to the North East. There special trains were prepared upon the orders from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and that it is fairly likely that it was the Intelligence Bureau in particular within the MHA that ordered the trains.
He also said that that the question of whether journalists need an additional level of protection (as compared to ordinary citizens) is difficult to answer without agreement on more fundamental questions like ‘Who is a journalist? However, the fact remains that surveillance is unregulated and very damaging and this is aided by the absence of any law relating to privacy.
In a discussion about whether surveillance agencies deliberately use particular laws to harass subjects, panelists indicated that they do. One of panelists narrated a personal experience of how the power to issue a summons to produce a document or thing under section 91 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 is used to intimidate. They explained that that whatever is possible and convenient under the law is attempted, not just in India but also under the United States of America’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 1978 and the Patriot Act, 2001.
The question of hiding in plain sight and attempting to use excess communication (‘hiding in plain sight’) to camouflage particular communication was also discussed. More than one panelist explained that although this can be a helpful strategy sometimes, it is not foolproof, and merely increases the number of sources that need to be watched. Such a strategy would also be completely useless to a journalist who only has one source in a government agency or company, and would not therefore be able to call multiple people with the agency or company to make it difficult to gauge who the source is. One of the panelists suggested that it might be a good idea to for lawyers and journalists explore the use of encrypted communication, and that the legal regime may even reach a stage where it explores punishing lawyers and journalists for negligence if they call sources or clients directly, without using encryption. Others agreed that in certain journalistic fields the hiding in plain sight is ineffective, and that in view of the sophisticated technology at the government’s disposal, this strategy is likely to have very limited utility.
The question of whether have internalised the idea of surveillance also came up, and was offered as one potential reason for why Indian privacy jurisprudence has not evolved beyond PUCL v. Union of India, which is the source for the phone tapping safeguards. Others pointed out how the Information Technology Act, 2000 is creating a legal regime which the Constitution itself did not envisage, with excesses such as Section 66A being used as tools by government agencies. The panel emphasised that it is critical, in the context of surveillance laws, to ask about the identity of the agencies who have been empowered to perform surveillance. In the United States and United Kingdom, all these agencies are created under statutes with safeguards built in. Although the agencies in these countries may not be acting in an optimal manner, but the safeguard mechanism provides a bare minimum systematic method of enforcement.
Practice of Digital Journalism
Teresa Rehman, Editor, The Thumb Print
Teresa Rehman’s talk provided overview of the activities of the Thumb Print magazine, and the difficulties both of being a journalist from the North East, as well as starting a magazine of this kind on the North East.
The national media severely neglects stories from the North East, and even when it does focus on the North East, it does this by parachuting in people from mainstream India rather than using the same resources to enable journalists embedded in the north east to report. As a result, there was a vacuum both for people who had stories to tell, as well as for people who wanted to read these stories in the North East. Thumb print made these stories from the north eastern region accessible to everyone, and offered a platform to people from the region to tell their stories.
However, the magazine faces funding problems, and the editors and some of the staff are still grappling with technology that they need to use to keep the magazine running. However they have an outpouring of contributors from the region as well as a supportive and burgeoning audience across India.
Teresa highlighted to possibilities of the digital media from this perspective. She was able, without funding, to create this platform for otherwise extremely marginalised stories, and was able to enable people to tell these stories. She was also able to raise an audience for these stories around India.
Rohini Lakshane, Editor, EROTICS India
Rohini discussed her experience as a blogger and editor of Wikipedia. She started her discussion with the question of who is a journalist and who is a blogger, a discussion which she said began in 2008 and is still continuing. Briefly, she argued that the difference between the two lies in the ethics that a journalist must maintain, although she conceded that this is not a universal standard, and does have exceptions.
For example, she pointed out that bloggers promote the products or services of certain companies as a part of blogging competitions run or or sponsored by the companies, without disclosing their incentives for these promotions.
Rohini also spoke about Wikipedia and how information from Wikipedia is picked up by the mainstream media in a lot of instances, without any verification of the authenticity of the information available on Wikipedia. She also stated how as an editor of Wikipedia, she gets regular requests from big companies to edit information about them and make it more favourable.
Anika Gupta, Product Manager for Citizen Journalist Digital at CNN-IBN
Anika spoke on the topic of ‘Citizen Journalism & Traditional Media: Creating New Media Stakeholders’. She spoke about the challenge of verification of content over the Internet and the issues that one faces in doing it. The traditional newspaper model was structured around beat reporting, and a reporter embedded with a beat made for a quick a quick and sure way to verify news from that beat. However, most of the journalists today are disconnected from the communities that they are cover.
Online publications often publish pieces without verification, and remain focused on getting a large number of page views which translates into more advertising revenue. However the audiences expects to see why the piece deserves trust and how ethical reporting is reflected in the piece. If your published work merely reflects a particularly standpoint or bias, the audience will just disagree with you. However if it emerges that what you are reporting is false, your audience will leave the community. It is therefore important to develop a set of fundamental best practices.
The discussion started with the question of who is a journalist. All the panellists agreed that the boundaries are blurred with the rise of the Internet and the digital media. Some pointed out that it is particularly important for small/ startup online portals to be ethical, since the audience will judge the stories. Examples were gives of successful startups that built trust by being ethical and transparent.
On the question of the tradeoff between speed and accuracy while reporting, many agreed that the advent of online media has led to competition in breaking the story first: whoever brings the story out first, owns the story. This means that there are many instances of inaccurate reporting. Although information can most easily be obtained by unofficial and anonymous sources, anonymous sources also make it difficult to verify stories. One method that some online publishers use to balance speed and accuracy is to break the story early but follow it up with a detailed piece, highlighting all the facts and issues, or even build the story gradually as verified details emerge.
In conclusion, Geeta Seshu suggested that two issues to consider during future discussions are (1) the impact of language on the digital medium for the exchange of information, and (2) how mobile media can affect, extend, change digital journalism.