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Scared by a spoof? You’ve got to be kidding me!

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jun 05, 2012 05:24 AM
Whether it is Mamata Banerjee's recent crackdown on a comic strip or the new legal guidelines that allow touchy readers to have objectionable content taken down, what you say online is under scrutiny. What, then, will happen to news satire websites?

The article by Dhamini Ratnam was published in the Times of India on June 3, 2012

"Meri site kabse band ho chuki hai (...) Humara sabse bada hathiyar humse chheena ja raha hai (...) Aaj chup rahe toh phir bolne ke liye zubaan bhi nahin bachegi." (My site has been shut down (...) Our biggest weapon is being taken away from us (...) If we remain silent, we won't be left with anything to articulate with").

That's the first thing you read on Kanpur-based blogger Aseem Trivedi's new site,, on which he transferred all his satirical cartoons earlier this year, after he found that his website had been arbitrarily blocked based on a complaint lodged with the Mumbai Crime Branch last December.

In May, Trivedi went on a hunger strike. His point was simple. The police had no right to have his website taken down, under the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008, or even under the new Information Technology (intermediary guidelines) Rules, 2011. These rules came into effect last April, and give 36 hours to the intermediary (read Internet Service Provider) to take down content deemed 'objectionable'.

At the face of it, this may seem like a handing over of power to Internet users. But what does this hold out for news satire websites that routinely critique public figures, spoof politics and play an important role in raising public awareness through humour?

For one, in a surprising move, the editors are giving up being anonymous. Says Rahul Roushan, editor, Faking News, "I began this site under the pseudonym Pagal Patrakar in 2008. By the end of 2009, I didn't want to remain anonymous anymore."

Roushan, who is based in Gurgaon, felt readers weren't taking him seriously. "Unless there's a face to such sites, people will think you're spreading lies," says the 33-year-old former television news anchor. Yet, coming out wasn't a cakewalk. "A post I wrote about on the anti-people policy of Mr Thackeray received a comment that I am a Bihari, and therefore against Marathi manoos. Had he not known my name, the reader would never have written such a comment," says Roushan.

Yet, Roushan would rather have his readers - his blog gets 10 lakh page views a month - trust his judgement.

However, recent events, including Pashimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's crackdown on a comic strip, and Union human resource development, communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal's suggestion to Internet giants to "regulate themselves" has left Roushan and other news satire website editors wary.The new IT guidelines, fears Roushan, will create an army of self-righteous people with "a lot of hurt sentiments".

"I'm scared of sentiments," he says, wryly.

T S Sudhir, editor of Tenali Rama Reports, a news spoof site that was started in September 2011, feels the trick to safeguard against such "sentiments" is to maintain a rigorous editorial policy. "No obscene, lewd or toilet humour," says the Hyderabadbased former journalist.

The recent fracas over Mamata's 'Maoist' concerns, for instance, elicited a light-hearted piece that said all dosa-eaters are Maoists, because 'mao' in Tamil means 'batter'. "India has a long-standing political tradition of satire, and readers are used to political cartoons with biting humour."

Mangalore-based political cartoonist Satish Acharya, however, has faced the brunt for his biting humour. In September 2011, a Mumbai Crime Branch officer asked him to take down a cartoon depicting Sharad Pawar in a red gown that Acharya had posted on his blog, after it was published in a Mumbaibased tabloid. "In political cartoons, what is the yardstick to measure what is objectionable," asks Acharya. "Can a policeman decide whether a political cartoon is objectionable and have it taken down?"

Programme manager at The Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, Pranesh Prakash has a one word reply: No. Together with his teammates, Prakash is working on a set of guidelines that counters the Intermediary Rules and offers checks and balances without trampling on fundamental rights. For instance, says Prakash, after a complaint is made, the content owner - say the website editor, or cartoonist - should be allowed to reply. If the problem persists, the complainant can go to court.

If cartoons are an effective vehicle of critique online, so are videos. The UnReal Times, run by New Delhi-based IIM graduates C S Krishna and Karthik Laxman, shot to online fame last year after they released a video depicting the Prime Minister as Singham, the heroic character played by Ajay Devgn in a film.

"The best sort of satire," says Krishna, "is when you can't prove in the court of law that the piece is insulting." Krishna and Laxman, who do policy research work for BJP MP Uday Singh, insist that they are not card-holders for the party, and have taken pot-shots at the BJP, too. "Since political satire focuses on mocking the establishment, the UPA government is the subject of most our (satirical) pieces on politics," says Krishna. Tanay Sukumar, editor of News That Matters Not, feels that the content should be directed at a problematic policy, not person. Engineering students Sukumar and Sugandha, who founded the site in 2009, feel that a satirist needs to distinguish between what is necessary and what isn't. "Portraying a political figure using sexual innuendo might be funny for several readers, but would be "unnecessary" in most cases. Our job is to to critique governance." In the case of a crackdown, however, they are clear about what they'd do: they'll take down the 'offending' piece, and then write about having done so. "We will not offend them; we will wear them out," they say.

Want to start a news satire website? here's how:

Have a disclaimer page. Apologise in advance for "hurt sentiments", offer readers a chance to get in touch with you directly for redressal, explain why you're using satire as a tool to critique. If your ISP is asked to remove content, the current IT guidelines are such that they would need to obey. However, since the law doesn't require ISPs to keep track of content that has been removed, make noise about it. There'll be enough people online who will fight for your freedom of expression. Study satire - it's an effective tool - but learn to distinguish it from slander and falsehood. Keep the post grounded in a real event or phenomenon. Critique the agenda, not the person. Consult an IT lawyer if you are in doubt about a piece. It's always good to know your legal argument beforehand.

Pranesh Prakash is quoted in this article.

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