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Free to air?

Many group housing societies banned the entry of delivery boys, not for the poison some of them may have carried within their pages but out of worry that they came coated with a dreaded virus.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

An unfortunate by-product of the lockdowns that were imposed across the country in March was the impact it had on distribution of newspapers. Some states went so far as to ban distribution, while in others the fears voiced by illinformed citizens, and fuelled we must say by halfbaked experts, led to a boycott of newspapers.

Many group housing societies banned the entry of delivery boys, not for the poison some of them may have carried within their pages but out of worry that they came coated with a dreaded virus. When rail and air operations were suspended, supplies to distant places were hit. To overcome this, some people began to circulate digitised pages of the daily newspaper using platforms such as WhatsApp.

For some time, newspapers looked the other way, happy the content they had put together overcoming health and other risks that journalists and other newspaper employees faced, were finding an audience even if they did not garner revenues.

While restrictions have eased and modes of transportation are available, although with restricted schedules, the practise of distributing newspaper editions through WhatsApp continues, despite legal experts having warned that this is illegal in terms of both the Copyright Act as well as the Information Act.

It also entails significant loss of revenue for those who have made their e-papers available only on a subscription model. Of course, the dissemination of copyrighted content is unlikely to concern WhatsApp, set up in 2009 and owned now by Facebook.

For the rapacious aggregation of content to further their own business models has long been a practise of social media giants like Google and Facebook, one that has largely gone unchecked in most parts of the world. While regulators in some jurisdictions, most recently Australia, have sought to inject a degree of balance in the relationship between the publisher and social media companies, India has made no moves in the direction, starry-eyed as the establishment finds itself in the presence of tech giants, especially those from America.

Newspapers were among the worst hit by the pandemic but there has been no attempt by the Finance Minister or the Information and Broadcasting minister to recognise the distress of the industry. What is worse, governments in New Delhi and at state headquarters have the spottiest payment records among advertisers, with some like the rulers in Nabanna injecting whimsy into the payment mechanism.

To add to their many woes, publishers now find the fruits of their labour being mass circulated through the ether. While publishers must act to protect their intellectual property from opportunistic social media platforms, it devolves on the Ministers of I&B and Information Technology to summon WhatsApp and read its managers the Riot Act.

The government may not have time for newspapers or be overly concerned about their health. But surely Mr Prakash Javadekar and Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad ought to be committed to defending the laws of the land. There is, after all, the little matter of the oaths they took.