Can media literacy be an alternative to censorship?
March 3, 2017

With the effectiveness and even the goal of censorship under debate, how can the public make informed decisions? People must know how to identify a stereotype in media text, reject a social cliché and distinguish truth from propaganda, says Madhusmita Boruah

Her innocent eyes were full of tears as images of the burnt school bag and the lone shoe kept flashing on the television screen. “Why?” she asked. Her father was silent. There was nothing he could say that would satisfactorily answer his little daughter’s question as she looked at the dead faces of her classmates on TV.
The media coverage of the 2008 Guwahati blast, for example, that almost turned into a competition about which channel would show the most violent images created a controversy, but the truth is that the TRP games of media houses is playing havoc with sensitivities. If the basic objective of censorship is to reduce the negative impact of media content on society, then the question arises, why are images of violence telecast by the news media not censored?

In the 21st Century, censorship has become the hidden means of propaganda. In a media scenario where the owner is also the editor of the newspaper or the news channel, censorship is an invisible tool to implement political and business agendas. The 24-hour news culture highlights some market-oriented news story or the other, selected by internal censorship processes. For instance, the same event is covered differently by different channels. So, who decides what is to be shown, and what is not to be shown to the public?

Critics of censorship believe that a system of filtering out media content assumes that the audiences or readers are too immature to have their own opinions. The ban on the BBC documentary India’s Daughters on the infamous Nirbhaya incident, directed by Leslee Udwin, is an example of coercive action against supporting human rights.

Similarly, the controversy over censoring the film Udta Punjab (2016) directed by Abhishek Chaubey, centred around the drugs issue in Punjab, has led to a debate on the role of the Indian Censor Board. Though initially the Board ordered a total of 89 cuts in the film, the Bombay High Court subsequently gave permission for its national release with only one cut. (It has to be noted that the Censor Board does not pass strictures on the objectification of women, but finds the portrayal of society’s ills a problem).

It is not censorship that will channelise thought and behaviour into desirable avenues, but cognitive skills which determine how an individual interprets events or negotiates meanings based on independent decisions.
A similar contradiction can be seen in the Censor Board’s banning of advertisements of intoxicants such as cigarettes and alcohol. The makers of these products are allowed to promote them in the guise of pushing some innocuous product, through a process of surrogate advertising. For instance, McDowells subtly promotes its alcohol by advertising its water. The irony is that only direct advertisement of these products is banned, there is no bar on the production of these noxious substances itself.

According to a report published by the Paris-based Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which examined the economic and health implications of alcohol use among its 34 member countries and a few non-members as well, India stands in the third position among 40 nations in the impact of alcohol use. The government’s reluctance to ban production of intoxicating substances can be put down to the chaos such a sudden move would cause in the economy, but at the same time, it has failed to take into consideration the negative impact of surrogate advertising, specially on the youth.

In such a situation, promoting media literacy can be an alternative to censorship. It can be used to train the audiences to become active consumers of media texts. Audiences can be taught how to exercise autonomy in making democratic media choices. The youth must be equipped with skills of self-censorship; they must cultivate critical thinking to strengthen their cognitive skills. They must know how to identify a stereotype in media text, reject a social cliché and distinguish truth from propaganda. Introduction of media literacy education is the need of the hour.

(The wirter is a PhD research scholar in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University, Assam.)

January-March 2017