Rumors, again

On Sunday, some news channels in Karnataka spread rumors regarding a child’s death; they attributed it to the Pulse Polio program, which was not the case. And this act let to utter chaos-

A regular polio drops campaign went haywire with rumours of children dying after the vaccination spread fast creating mayhem in Bangalore in the last two days. The campaign saw more than 5.5 lakh children being vaccinated in the city.

The trouble started when a local television channel reported the death of two children from the polio vaccine. More than 15,000 parents rushed their children to hospitals and for over eight hours there was mayhem in the city’s hospitals.

With a shortage of doctors to reassure the crowds, and a shortage of oral dehydration salts powders (general prescription), the angry parents and relatives of children went on a violent spree, breaking glass and stoning ambulances in the hospital premises.

In this post on Churumuri, the writer recommends (well, asks) the filing of criminal cases against the channel-

Lastly, should the reporter, who was responsible for filing the story without checking for facts, and the editor, who cleared it without bothering to verify the claim, be hauled up and criminal charges framed against them?

And that has happened. According to India Today, 14 cases have been filed against the channel under S505 of the Indian Penal Code.

Some people may find rumor mongering distasteful (though they don’t mind office grapevines, or chit chatting about their neighbors), and it is in most cases. The question however is – are the people spreading rumors legally responsible for the actions of others who simply believe in such rumors and then go do their thing? The answer is no, and I have previously written about why that is so. Also read the comments that follow. It was a very interesting debate, though it ended in a bit of a stalemate.

Every legal restriction on free speech potentially has a ‘chilling effect’ on speech – people will refrain from speaking the truth, or saying anything at all, lest they face law suits. The media can be absolutely pathetic at times. But that does not give the government the right to regulate it – through diktats, though laws curtailing free speech, or though any other means. And since the media is not a special creature, regardless of what some journalists tend to think, what applies to them also applies to every other person.

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Comments

  • Undercover Indian  On December 23, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    “And since the media is not a special creature, regardless of what some journalists tend to think, what applies to them also applies to every other person.”

    No No. Media is indeed a special creature. There is a man in my village who as they say “lost it” many years back. He is usually found in old bus stop, in dirty clothes, has long over grown hair and is fed by piteous bystanders. When is spirits, he stands top the platform and gives speeches on myriad of subjects which many times include choisests of abuses and cuss words. Nobody takes his for serious and just laugh him off. Incredible freedom of speech.

    Media is not like that. Media influences millions. Specially in country like India, where people tend to be naive, media has huge powers. Unless it regulates itself (like Indian Media , India TV and ilk), someone else will seek to do it. Tomorrow I can launch a channel on child pronograhy or occult and black magic, would you still support my freedom of speech then?

  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 23, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    “No No. Media is indeed a special creature.”
    The media is influential no doubt. But the ‘special’ I refer to is in relation to their view that freedom of the press is somehow different from regular free speech.

    “Tomorrow I can launch a channel on child pronograhy or occult and black magic, would you still support my freedom of speech then?”
    Rights are not a matter of convenience and the concept of rights is not derived from unexplained dreams or fished out of some magician’s hat.
    So when I say I believe in freedom of speech, I mean that I do not support ‘any’ ‘legal’ restriction (government censorship) on ‘any’ ‘speech’. All speech and expression that is not by itself illegal (the legal I refer to is the law as derived from natural rights, not our modern day bastardized version) is covered here. So, child porn will not be covered because it violates the rights of an individual who is not of the age of consent; murder will not be covered – you cannot have a show where the anchor murders people, for example; but hard core pornography, occult, and every other speech and expression that does not violate the natural rights of any other person will be covered. Not everyone will find it to their liking, but people’s sensibilities cannot become law.

    This does not mean that I don’t support ‘private’ censorship – self censorship. I don’t watch India TV for example, or many other news channels. They cannot influence me. And if I owned a newspaper or tv news channel – I will refuse employment to any astrologer or ‘spiritual’ person; I will not provide any present day politician a platform to propagate his nonsensical views in the name of ‘fair’ coverage; I won’t employ journalists who believe in or are in favor of statist ideas.

    This is the essential difference – between legal restrictions, and private restrictions. If something is legally restricted, no one can do it. If I don’t allow an astrologer space in my newspaper, he can always write for the Times of India, or Wynand’s Banner.

    There are two paragraphs that flesh out my views on free speech. One of them (mis-attributed to Voltaire) is this-

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,”

    The second one (Noam Chomsky’s view) is this-

    “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

    Then there is Rand’s view.

  • Abhishek  On December 24, 2008 at 2:24 am

    Aristotle, I think the specifics of the particular (polio) case (it was made by a news channel and not an individual, it was made as a statement of fact and not one of opinion) puts it in the “implied contract” category that I think justifies action against them. Whether there should be criminal charges is another matter; I would incline towards civil liability in such cases.

    Others who wish to know my justification for restrictions on speech in such cases (the case of defamation, imminent harm due to malicious, false statements, etc,) can look at the thread Aristotle linked to.

    Undercover Indian, I would indeed support your right to free speech if you make an adult porn channel or anything else for that matter. My free speech exceptions only relate to making objectively false statements that directly harm others, not to distasteful depictions or expression of any sort whatsoever. If you want to make a document expressing your *opinion* that black magic can cure cancer or whether you want to show stuff that ‘corrupts’ the moral values of the nation, go for it, I will support your right to do so!

  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 24, 2008 at 5:33 am

    “I think the specifics of the particular (polio) case (it was made by a news channel and not an individual, it was made as a statement of fact and not one of opinion) puts it in the “implied contract” category that I think justifies action against them.”
    Knowing your position, I knew you would say that.

    —–
    And yes, if readers don’t have a position on the limits of free speech, this post of mine, the books, articles and posts that I link to from there, and the comments on it should help you iron out any doubts you might have and take some kind of informed stand on the issue.

  • Pramod Biligiri  On December 24, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    I think the media should be able to say whatever it wants, rumour or not. This TV9 event had set the stage perfectly for the state of news TV to improve, and government thew a monkey in the wrench.

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