Censorship as an Ineffective Tool for Governments

For nearly five months last year, the Indian-administered region of Kashmir protested the treatment of its citizens by the Indian government. What began as a response to an incident along the India/Pakistan line of control escalated once Indian paramilitary forces entered the fray. Innocent teenagers, many of them promising students, were killed as the government attempted to crack down on the unrest. In reaction, more protests took place, leading to further deaths and a vicious cycle that saw its way through the summer and beyond.

Violence in Kashmir is nothing new—the valley has been a strategic possession and a source of contention between India and Pakistan since 1947—but the use of the new media to communicate the human rights abuses is a recent development. Through the creation and spread of Facebook groups and YouTube videos, young Kashmiris supplemented their physical rallies for self-determination with cyber protests, gaining more support in mainland India as a result.

What’s interesting, however, is that these methods of online advocacy weren’t ideas born out of creativity, but rather necessity. Despite holding the title of world’s largest democracy, India chose to effectively preclude (through censorship and intimidation) all forms of legacy media from reporting on the situation. By establishing various checkpoints within the region, Indian military officials were able to screen journalists as they entered, allowing those who had Indian sympathies to pass while destroying the credentials of everyone else—including those reporters who were sponsored by the West. Outlets like BBC News published stories documenting how soldiers had physically beaten their foreign correspondents in an effort to send a message that pro-Kashmir journalism would not be tolerated.

Consequently, young Kashmiris were forced to turn to the Internet—a decision that may have brought with it a faster resolution to the controversy. By uploading raw images and video of the scenes on the ground, protestors were able to capture and hold a population of middle-class Indians who had never before thought twice about the valley outside of when the country was “at war with Pakistan.” Through forming an effective advocacy cycle by which Kashmiris could spur the mainland Indian population into questioning the government’s treatment of the valley’s citizens, the youth population in Kashmir doubled the pressure for high-ranking Indian officials to resolve the conflict through peaceful terms that were more favorable than the status quo before the protests.

All of this has me asking: should print media censorship policies be considered counterproductive from the even the government’s perspective when it comes to resolving minority-driven conflicts? While newspapers are still a major source of news in both India and Kashmir, it seems as though citizens have become increasingly desensitized to the standard print media portrayal of violence and human rights abuses. Forcing Kashmiris to use the technology at their disposal (mostly phones that were camera- and video-enabled) shifted the discourse away from edited, structured reporting to more dynamic and perhaps more compelling raw footage and outrage. Moreover, the specific media vehicles used, by virtue of their Generation Z social networking functions, brought into the fold a demographic of Indians who more closely related to the teenage victims of the violence and therefore found the actions of government unacceptable.

It’s a tough counterfactual upon which to ruminate, but I can’t help but think—having interviewed friends who were in India at the time—that India’s defaulting to illiberal censorship policies actually undermined their goal of keeping the situation under wraps. Such a case study makes me look at this kind of politically sensitive information the same way a physicist would observe the dynamics of fluid overflow: if you use pressure to seal off the certain outlets in the system, the information will just be released somewhere else. Moving past the analogy, from a government’s perspective, it appears some outlets are more dangerous than others; it’s not just the substance of the information that matters, it’s how that information is presented and exposed.

1 comment to Censorship as an Ineffective Tool for Governments

  • Alf

    Interesting post and interesting question. My guess is that India wasn't repressive enough. Look at China: sadly, it seems like there will not be a Jasmine revolution there, and it's probably due to the fact that China has very effective censorship.
    Let me ask you this in return: how long until the world gets tired of seeing people getting beat up through cellphone videos? What will be the next form of rallying support?

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