So much for Freedom of Press

December 1791:
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, drafted by James Madison:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

March 2005:
The Washington Post quotes Federal Election Commissioner David M. Mason:
“We are almost certainly going to move from an environment in which the Internet was per se not regulated to where it is going to be regulated in some part. That shift has huge significance because it means that people who are conducting political activity on the Internet are suddenly going to have to worry about or at least be conscious of certain legal distinctions and lines they didn’t used to have to worry about.”

While contrasting Madison and Mason, let’s worry:

We got Presidents famously known to end speeches with “God Bless America”; we got enforcement agencies tapping phones and monitoring chat conversations; and we got an individualistic society committed not to assemble for common good– but grow insanely self-centered to survive battles of job insecurities.

When it has come to ownership of media, FCC has let go of regulations—indeed purged existing regulations, so that only the big fishes remain (after gobbling the smaller ones, of course). So that, monopolies emerge in the garb of competition. When it has come to mergers and acquisitions of media business, there is no such regulations. Indeed the team spirit exhibited by top companies in their quest to end public initiatives in community media, alternative media, radical media, and/or free media, is matchless. And there is no regulation sought for, even as more than three-fourths of community radio stations remain forced-closed. When it comes to prevailing power of the established conglomerates to eliminate all the lesser press, there has been no regulations.

Merely three decades ago, when there were offensives against the underground press and sabotaging staged against the dissident press, no regulations ever were in place to monitor CIA, FBI and the Army. When Ramparts was investigated into for having planned an expose on CIA’s funding of the US National Student Association, there were no call for regulations on the agency’s high-handedness in dealing with press freedom. When FBI persuaded Columbia Records to stop advertising in the underground press such as Berkeley Barb and Free Press, there was no regulations to judge the qualification of a domestic investigation agency to influence press advertisements. The six-paper Kaleidoscope chain, student papers South End, State News, or publications such as Rearguard, Independent Eye, Queen City Express, The Sea Turtle and the Shark and dozens more were all targeted by the establishment, there was no talk of such regulations. And we are not even talking about radical press here, not even about Alternative Press Syndicate news service. Not making a profile of Independent Eye, Off Our Backs, the boycotted publisher Bill Schanen, the White Panthers or the Black Panthers.

In many ways, the historical contexts differed, although social injustices are as rampant as ever and there is an acute need of a vigilant press as mass media aimed to educate the peoples and not end up becoming a fourth estate, an indispensable wing of the White House to publish the voices of the administration.

But in some more fundamentally different ways, Mason’s statements call for alarm. Unlike publications and publishers, the companies who fund and those who do not, this time around, the laws will focus on regulations on individuals like you and I who are reading and blogging our active voices!

I have always been an ardent supporter of regulating media, to begin with. Unless there are regulations on part of the state to monitor free competition, only a handful of people will survive and flourish in any business. This will be to the detriment of majority others since, the monopoly will ensure a profit sphere, not a pubic sphere for media discourse. Historically the grip, as we know, has been let loose and the monopolies, as we know, have been the outcome of the ‘deregularization”. Lack of regulations have only led to media monopoly. Hence the emergence of online media expression, not in form of subsidiary sister concerns of big press but as outrageously challenging individual bloggers running free words on free space. I call this the fifth space.

That is new about Mason—He talks of regularization this time, of the bloggers. Not of the political economy. But of the individual voices. Of the freewheeling thought provokers. Of the alternative thinkers translating thoughts to words that get published without a publisher to be scrutinized.

“People who are conducting political activity on the Internet are suddenly going to have to worry about.” Mason is right. So far, people never conducted political activities except on the day of the poll. These days people blog their journeys and comments on a daily basis. The voice is louder. The hyperlinks have become major organizing tools. Suddenly the “Person” has become political, as against the corporate houses which were political agents forever shielded by political powers.

The personal voice has become significant and a force to reckon with. Community organizations were dreaded so far. Now on, the fear of a virtual community. For a community is not per se. A community needs to be organized. Just when bloggers communicated with each other, expressed their commonalities basing on political frustrations, we knew a community was being formed. When Dailykos, claiming to be progressive amassed maximum hits in face of corporate angst, eyebrows were raised. But a community was being formed nevertheless.

Now on, beware! Read the board. A law is underway. Assemble against it, as the right one can exercise, or be silenced as the unsung martyrs of an era – where freedom could be expressed without resorting to the watchful fourth estate. Indeed it could be felt because it posed a challenge to the fourth estate. For once, lets see whose side is the estate taking. Of freedom of expression or fiefdom of suppression.

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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

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