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Whose Country is it Anyway?

One of the five filters of how mass media manufactures our consent according to Noam Chomsky is through the creation of a “common enemy.” We look at countries across the world and the trend we see is the group of people who constitute the majority are perceived as the persecuted minority. This is manifested in the manner in which they feel that various other minority groups are taking away their jobs, places in educational institutions, access to healthcare, etc. and most of all their culture. These supposed minority groups are what comprise the “common enemy.” A common enemy, which is a bogeyman to fear, helps corral public opinion. The common enemies are usually immigrants, communism or terrorists. In today’s world, they are also Muslims and people from the “lower castes.”

It is on the basis of hate for the common enemy that elections are fought and the majority united. As a result, the Internet has become the hunting ground for the spread of false propaganda, which results in the spread of fake news or disinformation, hate speech, etc. Governments are using disinformation/ fake news as a trope to muzzle speech and curb dissent. By introducing Internet laws and laws pertaining to speech, they are muzzling dissent and targeting people, under the façade of clamping down on hate speech.

On July 30th last year, the Russian government signed a law that blocks websites and Internet services which offered Russians a loophole into viewing content banned in their country. This law, signed by Putin, claims to combat extremism. It was reported that in 2016, Russia flagged more content as inappropriate on Google than all other governments combined. This is not the first law which has been used to censor content online. In 2012, upon his return to the presidency, Vladimir Putin amended the Act for Information. It essentially gave the Roskomnadzor (Russia’s Internet watchdog) the authority to force websites offline without a court order. This was introduced under the guise of protecting children from harmful content online. In the past, the Roskomnadzor has blacklisted the blogs of Gary Kasparov and Alexei Navalny, who are vocal critics of Putin. The reason given for the blacklisting was that the blogs encouraged illegal activity.

Dyeti-404, an online support group for LGBT youths, was also removed in 2015 due to posts discussing suicidal feelings among children. In the run-up to his election in 2012, there was a surge of protests online. Thus to bridge the gap between state-owned regulated television media and the loosely regulated Internet, in 2014 Putin signed a law which made any blog which had more than 3000 readers a news outlet, making it legally liable as one, and requesting that any website of similar popularity store all its Russian users’ data on Russian soil. In one such case a blogger targeted, Ruslan Sokolovsky, was handed a three and a half year sentence, later reduced to one year, for inciting hatred and insulting religious sentiments by playing Pokemon Go in a church. He was also added to an official list of “terrorists and extremists” maintained by Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service. According to Agora, a human rights group in Russia, in 2017, there were more than 115,000 cases of Internet censorship. 110,000 were related to blocked websites, with an average of 244 web pages being blocked per day by the authorities in 2017.

Looking West, in November 2017, the Venezuelan government passed an anti-hate media law. The law prohibits anyone from sharing content which promotes fascism, intolerance or hate on social media or other digital platforms. Violation of the law would result in 20 years in prison. It is known as the “Law against hate, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance.” The law also stipulates that broadcast media outlets are “obligated” to play state messages “promoting peace, tolerance, equality and respect” for up to 30 minutes each week. The law applies to all citizens, to media companies, people in public service and the education system. It prohibits and sanctions any actions against “peace and peaceful coexistence.” It is this vague wording which suggests that any justification can be used to punish and silence dissent.

The government under Nicolas Maduro is known to decry the opposition, silence dissent and curb freedom of expression. Pictures of former President Hugo Chavez have been removed, the present government wishes to change the Constitution. The Constituent Assembly has dictated standing orders declaring itself as the “original constituent power” having the authority to limit other organs. It has stripped the National Assembly (the Venezuelan Parliament) of its powers declaring that it has to accept the Constituent Assembly’s decisions, is not allowed to interfere with its decisions and has also dismissed the Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega by decree, replacing her with a government loyalist.

The anti-hate media law also stipulates that any political party, movement or organization which promotes hate or intolerance will be prohibited by the Electoral Commission. All persons in public service, in the military or in hospitals who do not intervene if they observe hateful or discriminating behavior will be punished with eight to ten years of imprisonment. This law will be enforced by a “commission for peaceful coexistence” which has already been established. It is comprised of Ministers of the government, members of the Electoral Commission, other governmental institutions and three members of the Constituent Assembly.

Thus we see the Venezuelan government has curbed any dissent online by terming it illegal, promotes fascism, a trend which is replicated in countries across the globe. Any group which opposes the government (which is now synonymous with the state) is the “common enemy.” The common enemy is against the country and does not wish for development or peace. They are regarded as people creating trouble, doing illegal things and are thus completely delegitimized.

In India, earlier this year we saw a crackdown on fake news by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Smriti Irani, in an attempt to muzzle dissent announced that journalists publishing “fake news” would have their accreditation with the Press Information Bureau suspended immediately on receipt of a complaint which would then lead to an investigation and those repeat offenders would lose their accreditation permanently. The privileges of accreditation from the Press Information Bureau are necessary to access subsidized healthcare under the Central Government Health Scheme. Professionally, it is entry to events where the Prime Minister and President are present and most importantly, this accreditation allows a journalist to maintain the anonymity of his/her source. The source is protected because of the accreditation and the journalist does not have to fix an appointment before entering Union Government Ministries or record their presence with any official, whom they may be meeting. This firewalls the journalist from attempts at finding out when and on how many occasions they visited the premises and which officers they met.

The trust between a journalist and his source is based on the fact that the source’s identity will not be revealed. This is the foundation stone of when a source is willing to speak out against a senior official or Minister, or against the policies of the government.

The release was withdrawn yet the aim of the suspension/expulsion of this accreditation was blacklisting media organizations and journalists. This is what coincidently, comprises the fourth filter of Manufacturing Consent (according to Noam Chomsky). This fourth filter is essentially flak when a certain narrative, a story published by a journalist or a media organization does not fall in line with the narrative or the agenda of the government. In retaliation the government pushes them to the margins and completely blocks their access as seen as an attempt to remove the accreditation when a certain story is inconvenient which results is discrediting of sources, delegitimizing journalists, trashing of stories and most importantly the diversion of conversation.

The conversation which is diverted is the failure of the government. In such scenarios aside from the flak, certain groups are targeted to be threatening the security of the State. This is exactly what is being replicated in India. While the PIB accreditation suspension was revoked, on August 28th many lawyers, professors, journalist, and activists were arrested and termed to be “Urban Naxals” who were trying to overthrow the government. Among the people arrested were lawyers, professors, and activist Sudha Bharadwaj, activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha, activist and writer Varavara Rao to name a few. The purpose of their arrest seems to be two-fold, the first, to muzzle any opposition against the government and completely delegitimize them by deeming their work to be illegal and suspicious. The second is to divert attention from the failures of the government: failure to create jobs, to improve the status of agriculture, to uplift farmers, failures of demonetization to eradicate black money, inaction over corporate loan fraud and many more such failures.

This atmosphere of wielding of power unceremoniously by governments is not exclusive to India. The spread of disinformation and hate speech is a very real phenomenon across the world. As reported in Bloomberg, Twitter bots are proliferating ahead of Sweden’s election this month — and they are 40 percent more likely to support the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. Rather than broadcasting propaganda to everyone, these bots will direct their activity toward influential people or political dissidents. They’ll attack individuals with scripted hate speech, overwhelm them with spam, or get their accounts shut down by reporting their content as abusive.

In Germany, as of January 1st, a new Internet law, NetzDG was introduced. The new law forces any Internet platform with more than 2 million users to implement more efficient and effective ways to report and delete potentially illegal content. Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram will all come under the new law, though professional networks like LinkedIn and Xing are expressly excluded, as are messaging services like WhatsApp. Content such as threats of violence and slander must be deleted within 24 hours of a complaint being received, or within seven days if cases are more legally complex. The problem with this law is that the government has deliberately left the task of deleting content or blocking users to the Internet platforms themselves, rather than having courts make decisions. It will become difficult to tell why individual posts have been deleted and can be used as a tool by the ruling party to censor speech and curb dissent.

Earlier this year in Kenya the government arrested a parliamentarian from the opposition and attempted to detain three prominent journalists. Kenya’s interior minister, Fred Matiang’I, accused the press of “complicity” in an attempt to “overthrow the legally constituted government” after it covered the unsanctioned swearing in of Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, as a parallel president. At least 90 people, mostly opposition supporters, have been shot and killed by the police, according to the government’s rights watchdog, in election-related violence since August. The opposition puts the death toll at more than 300. The police also arrested Tom Kajwang, an opposition MP and lawyer who oversaw Mr. Odinga’s swearing-in, which was characterised by the government as an “act of treason,” which is punishable by hanging. Nation Television (NTV), Citizen Television and the Kenya Television Network were removed from the air for over a week for broadcasting Mr. Odinga’s swearing in as the people’s president.

As we see, across the globe the trend of jailing members of civil society and muzzling of freedom of speech persists. All of these countries are democratic countries and have had a past of colonization, dictatorship or tyrant rule. What must be remembered through times of oppression when living in a democratic country is that history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. The atmosphere of xenophobia today has been present for ages and today the repercussions of this xenophobia has only broadened dislike and hatred. When living in countries where dissent is muzzled, speech restricted and innocent people jailed in the name of state security, it is important to remember that national pride is not made of glass, provocations should strengthen national pride not shatter it.