The original saying went, ‘Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Well, the perception seems to be changing. One of the stalwarts of communication of our times, Arthur C Clarke wrote about the phenomenon of Citizen Journalism soon after the Tsunami in 2004. Judging by the reports, he said that the best ones were written by people who were not mainstream journalists but were enterprising individuals who were present in situ and shared notes on the web. The best photographs were similarly obtained. Clarke described this phenomenon as ‘Citizen Journalism’, whereby everyone with access to a computer and the internet is, in effect, a journalist. And today, after Cablegate caused largely by WikiLeaks using the power of web based publishing, we can fully gauge what Arthur C Clarke meant.
One cannot overestimate the impact of the internet and digital communication today as compared to twenty or even fifteen years ago. Julian Assange, founder editor of WikiLeaks has stated, “What can achieve large reform is information and information can spread and it is our aim to change the world by using the power of information and knowledge by sharing both of those with the public.” The United States Secretary of the State Department, Hillary Clinton has been speaking on the freedom accorded by the internet in challenging what she describes as ‘oppressive regimes’. Of course, it is another matter altogether that she is vigorously condemning WikiLeaks whilst speaking of the winds of freedom in other countries. The recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have also been attributed in some measure to the influence of social networking sites like Twitter and different websites. The balance of power is changing. People are being held accountable. States are having to rethink how they approach information.
During my schooldays, it was a cherished desire to have a penfriend in a foreign country. And one would have to wait for a reply to arrive after having written and posted the letter. And letters would get misplaced. The fastest mode of written communication was the facsimile but it was expensive. In India, internet arrived almost as soon as it did in the West and took a while before catching on and now every second lane has a cyber café. People who do not have personal computers are also free to take full advantage of the whole world as displayed on the world wide web. It is perhaps an irony that internet as a technology reportedly has its origins in the United States Defence Department. More so now that the tables on the same institution have apparently been turned.
My father very often recalls the days when he would have to book a ‘trunk call’ to talk to someone outside his city. But the telecommunications revolution wrought by Sam Pitroda changed all that and even betel leaf shops have STD/ISD facilities in India today. It is indeed a surreal experience talking to someone who is physically present half a world away.
But intimacy has reached a different level altogether with the advent of the world wide web. For a start, there is a drastic reduction in the use of paper and inbuilt chat services in email accounts provide an unparalleled opportunity for people all across the globe to communicate with each other. Thus a playwright based in Montreal at -20C can talk with a freelance writer in Delhi at 15C and exchange notes on culture and the state of affairs in the world. The timing is different in the disparate locations, the two characters have never met each other, their only identities are their names as they appear on the screen, but voila, they are talking to each other just as they would to someone sitting right next to them. Of course, it goes beyond that, for it is now possible to share pictures and facilities like Skype provide an opportunity to see each other as well whilst talking.
I also distinctly remember the enormous and unnecessary trauma that we were subjected to during our schooldays as part of what was termed as ‘project work’ for history and geography. This endeavour till the mid nineties was a nightmare for both students and teachers alike and was the principal reason behind the savage mutilation of numerous valuable books that would be utilised to steal pictures to impress short sighted evaluators. But no need for that mendacity today. The web gives you all the pictures you want, write to NASA from Shyambajar or Beleghata and print the material you wish to and stick it in your archives in a way that is indestructible. A good student can teach his teacher if he puts his mind to it.
An astonishing film made by the SVT, the Swedish Broadcasting firm entitled ‘WikiRebels’ shows how a small group of intensely devoted and dedicated youngsters can change the world by their convictions by using modern communication technology. The exposure of the Icelandic banking system in 2008, the revelation of the Trafigura scandal in Ivory Coast where the conventional media was gagged by a court order not to reveal the deaths caused by toxic waste dumping that killed people, the airing of the Collateral Murder video footage, the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and the latest disclosure of diplomatic cables all point to a paradigm shift in communication technology. And what is once published on the net is virtually indestructible and publications get circulated on social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs. For me personally, it was an incredible experience to log on to the internet and get informed of Julian Assange’s bail decision straight from the court in London where the magistrate allowed tweeting from within the court premises.
I have also been witness to some extraordinary campaigns to stop cruelty to animals that have been web based. In 2006, a massive campaign launched in India to highlight the various issues surrounding the game of elephant polo has now forced a major change of policy in India regarding the usage of these animals in entertainment in Rajasthan. It was revealed that many of the animals used in polo matches were victims of the illegal trade in pachyderms in this nation. In the wake of that campaign, the Guinness Book of World Records has taken off elephant polo records from their publications. Similar campaigns have proved extraordinarily effective in the ongoing efforts to raise awareness on the plight of tigers in this country. Online petitions encompassing a wide variety of human rights causes have become commonplace with organisations like Avaaz garnering hundreds and thousands of signatures on the net in a single day.
Is the current situation of communication technology beyond criticism? Of course not. Technology can be misused including social networking sites. People can use it for airing trivia like what they are drinking for breakfast and if they prefer tea to coffee. Offensive sites are a major source of worry. Hacking of personal and professional information and data is a major cause of headache. Modern technology is a bit like using a knife, you can cut your hand if you are not careful but you can also use it to chop food and apply it as an effective tool.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian has said recently that a news item or feature on the web can be torn to pieces by knowledgeable readers writing in the comments section who are more adept in the written topic than the author. He says that today journalists and editors have to be very careful not to underestimate the intelligence of the reading public.
One has to bear in mind also that modern communication technology has lessened the gap between the so called developed and the so called developing world. It is much harder in today’s world to perpetuate traditional stereotypes about communities or even nation states, especially those that are well connected to the net. Internet and digital communication has changed the media landscape in India as well. The pontificating tone of the government is regularly put under the scanner on the web and access to YouTube and television programmes online means one need not listen to tanpura and sarangi vadan of Doordarshan all the time as was the norm in the seventies and eighties.
Whilst different journalists in respectable media institutions like Columbia University hold varying opinions on methods of fora like WikiLeaks as a tool for social change, it is generally acknowledged that initiatives like WikiLeaks have been a force for the better. The investigative journalist Iain Overton who worked with WikiLeaks on the Iraq War Logs cautions that overall WikiLeaks is a force for good but one cannot be absolutist about it. WikiLeaks is extremely powerful, and one has to be very careful about anything that is extremely powerful.
But perhaps the entire story of the awesome impact and power of WikiLeaks and networking sites is left to Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian. He says this story is scheduled to run and run. One might perhaps add, at what speed is the big question.