By PRAMOD RANJAN
The coronavirus-induced lockdown hasn’t just eroded our physical liberty; it has also eroded our intellectual freedom. Our freedom to think has been put under lock and key. Clearly, we are on the threshold of a dangerous phase. Which way we go from here will depend on how soon and how well we gauge the danger and start exploring the ways to counter it.
The success or failure of our endeavour will depend on how much time we take to raise questions on the so-called ‘pure sciences’ and experts. We will have to tell the people that the objectivity of science, experts etc. is not beyond reproach.
Here, ‘we’ means academicians, writers, journalists and other intellectuals. This is not an easy job for us as we have benefitted from our so-called ‘expertise’ in our respective fields and have, time and again, used it as a weapon to silence the doubters.
The curbs imposed by the governments on freedom of thought and expression are only a part of the problem. After all, once this so-called pandemic ends, we could have reclaimed our freedom from our respective governments. But a comparatively bigger problem is the technology that is controlled by Big Tech and GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon) etc. The censorship imposed by the Big Tech is much more wide-ranging and difficult-to-breach than the censorship imposed by the governments.
The nexus between the success of the monopolistic policies of these mega-corporations and the growing autocracy of the governments is there for all to see.
First, some instances of the autocratic behaviour of the governments.
In many states in India, police prohibited “inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus” (See Prohibitory Order no CP/XI (06) dated 23 May 2020 of the Greater Mumbai Police).
Similarly, IIT, Kharagpur asked its faculty members not to participate in radio broadcasts or write anything on subjects critical of the state and the central governments. It allowed its faculty members to write on subjects “of a purely literary, artistic or scientific character”. But here too, they were required to ensure that their writings “do not touch (on) any administrative issue.”
Incidentally, IITs are known the world over for the expertise of their faculty members in the fields of science and technology.
And these are just two instances.
Many countries, including India, have barred the public from asking questions based on their reasoning or their experience-based knowledge. Even the so-called experts (e.g. the faculty members of the IIT, Kharagpur) have been gagged.
Whose interests are being served and whose are being harmed by gagging science, experts and media? Those professing faith in the fairness and objectivity of god and religion are either fools or beneficiaries of that faith. The same is true of science and experts.
India has always been scoring low on press freedom indices. It is at the 142nd position among 180 countries of the world. During COVID-19, journalists in India are being persecuted on the charge of questioning government policies and spreading so-called false news.
Not only in India, but all over the world, news outlets, including newspapers, TV channels, websites and social media platforms, referred the queries of the people to the so-called expert bodies – the World Health Organization (WHO) and USA’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ironically, both these organizations are already under a cloud and have very low credibility. It has been proved time and again that both these organizations, in nexus with pharmaceutical companies and business-charities, flouting all rules and norms, conducted trials of hazardous medicines and vaccines on people of the Third World countries and have thrust failed technologies and medicines on these nations.
The world has never witnessed a global drive of this dimension aimed at crushing dissent and silencing the questioners and the sceptics. Never were all the answers to queries so one-sided. And never did the so-called experts wreak havoc on the world on such a scale.
Quoting the directives of these organizations, many developing and poor nations have made it mandatory for their media to place only such facts and strategies before the people, which have the approval of these two bodies.
The latest report of the International Press Institute shows that hundreds of journalists and media organizations were persecuted and victimized for differing with these organizations on key issues. They were framed in criminal cases, assaulted by the people and the police, barred from attending official press conferences and from visiting places and their press passes and accreditations were revoked. The governments of these countries forced hundreds of newspapers and magazines to shut down. Websites were blocked and were coerced into pulling down any content that raised questions related to COVID-19.
What is a matter of even greater concern is that several Asian, African and Latin American countries, using COVID pandemic as a convenient excuse, have promulgated laws restricting the freedom of media to question and probe. In this respect, the situation is the worst in Asian countries.
On 31 March 2020, the Russian Parliament amended the country’s penal code banning raising of questions related to COVID-19. Now, spreading so-called misinformation regarding COVID-19 would attract a fine of up to 23,000 Euros (about Rs 19.5 lakh) and imprisonment of up to five years in case of an individual and a fine of up to 1,17,000 Euros (around Rs 90 lakh) in case of media organizations.
Uzbekistan tweaked its laws in the first week of April. Under its new law, a person storing or managing ‘objectionable material’ may be fined up to 8.2 crore Uzbekistani Som (around Rs seven lakh) or imprisoned for up to three years. If the objectionable material is shared, the period of imprisonment may go up to five years.
South-eastern Asian nation Vietnam framed a new law in February under which sharing the so-called misleading information would attract a fine of 10 to 20 lakh Dongs (Rs 32,000 to Rs 64,000). This is equivalent to three to six months’ basic salary of an average Vietnamese. This will be the price they would have to pay for asking the ‘wrong’ questions about COVID.
The Philippines Congress passed a new law at its special session, equipping President Rodrigo Duterte with emergency powers for combating COVID-19. Under the new law, spreading misinformation about COVID-19 on social media and on other platforms has been made punishable with imprisonment up to a period of two months and fine of up to 19,500 dollars (around Rs 14.5 lakh). After acquiring his new rights, in the first week of April, Duterte issued shoot-at-sight orders for lockdown violators. There were reports that the Philippines police shot two elderly persons for violating the lockdown. Reports suggesting that the President himself is a drug addict amply indicate what the people of the Philippines must be facing. Ironically, the police have killed more than 6,000 persons under a drive launched by the President to free the country from the drug menace. In an interview with BBC in December 2016, the President had admitted that as the Mayor of Davao City, he had himself shot three persons accused of rape and loot. He said he didn’t remember how many bullets he pumped into their bodies.
Needless to say, the Philippines is not the only country being ruled by psychopaths. They are holding positions of power and responsibility in many a place and are arbiters of the fate of their countries and their people.
No such law has been made in India thus far but here too, the government, the judiciary and the owners of media houses have ganged up to suppress questions. This unholy alliance has eroded freedom of expression to a far greater extent than in many other countries.
Compared to other nations, media houses in India have much closer financial ties with the government. They are not only dependent on the government for a major chunk of their ad revenue but also for behind-the-curtain legal and illegal concessions for their other businesses.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown on the evening of 24 March. A few hours earlier, he interacted with the owners and the editors of country’s leading newspapers via a video conference. Twenty representatives of eleven newspaper groups, including The Indian Express, The Hindu and Punjab Kesri participated in the event. The recordings of the deliberations have not been made public and the participant newspapers have refrained from sharing the information with their readers. However, a brief note on the event was put up on the official website of the Prime Minister. According to the note, the PM told the representatives of newspapers that during the COVID-19 crisis, “Media should act as a link between government and people and provide continuous feedback, at both national and regional levels”. He ‘emphasized’ that during this period, “It is important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour-mongering”. He urged the newspaper owners and editors to “assure the people” that the “Government is fully committed to countering the impact of COVID-19.”
Surprisingly, he also issued diktats to newspaper owners regarding the publication of articles and research papers on COVID. Normally, governments are content with fashioning the news stories to suit their interests, thus sparing articles and ‘thoughts’ expressed in books from censorship. However, in this hurriedly-convened meeting, Narendra Modi said that newspapers should “generate awareness about coronavirus through articles published on their pages” and “highlight the impact of the spread of the virus, through the inclusion of international data and case studies about other countries in their papers.” Clearly, he wants the newspapers to validate the exaggerated figures about the spread of the virus as also the autocratic policies to deal with the pandemic being advocated by WHO, CDC etc.
Whether PM Modi held a similar meeting with owners of TV news channels is not known. But what is known is that the entire Indian media scrupulously avoided raising questions on the government’s policy vis-a-vis COVID-19. Most of the media organizations not only didn’t object to the world’s strictest and inhuman lockdown but also presented the starving and miserable people who broke the lockdown as a bunch of criminals. “Lockdown/social distancing goes for a toss” was the constant refrain of media outlets. Their owners and editors forgot that by not raising questions on the violation of the human rights of the weaker sections, they were proving that they were entirely bereft of compassion and kindness, which are the basic traits of human beings.
A very small section of India media displayed compassion for the poor and the vulnerable and questioned the anarchy and corruption that marked the government’s strategy in dealing with the pandemic. But even this small section did not question the exaggerated claims about the seriousness of the crisis and the inhuman and barbaric means used for dealing with it. They blindly supported the so-called experts and science.
But despite that, the government urged the Supreme Court that in “larger interest of justice” it should direct the media institutions and especially web portals that they should only publish or telecast anything on COVID-19 after ascertaining the factual position from the government. In its order, the court, quoting WHO Director-General Dr Tedros, said,
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”.
The court said,
“We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct (that) the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments.”
Subsequently, different government authorities issued instructions to media regarding the sources from where they should collect information for publication. Thus, the Supreme Court, in effect, ordered the journalists to follow government directives. But surprisingly, Indian newspapers construed it as their ‘victory’ and published reports claiming that the SC had turned down the government’s plea!
Whether the media’s silence on different dimensions of the COVID issue was because of the fear of the Prime Minister, the financial interests of the owners or the directives of the court is anybody’s guess. There is little doubt that these factors did play a key role, but it is also a fact that projections of COVID deaths and the reports about the number of people dying in America and Italy sent a shiver down the spine of most journalists. Many of them are still not aware that the projections have proved wrong and that British MPs are questioning Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College. They are also unaware that the methodology adopted for the compilation of COVID death figures may be useful for medical research but it is generating exaggerated figures. The key reason for this state of affairs is that like the common people, accessing facts has been made difficult for media persons, too.
The Big Tech’s influence is not confined to their own platforms. It extends to the sources of information used by journalists and writers. The policies adopted by the Big Tech before and during the pandemic have ensured that the sources of information inimical to their interests are either destroyed or their reach is severely constricted.
Additionally, Big Tech has launched a campaign aimed at undermining the credibility of sources of information that are hurtful to their interests by funding the so-called ‘fact-checking’ bodies. It is also converting small blogs, websites and other alternative and mainstream media outlets into fact-checking institutions by providing funds to them. Not only the tech giants but many charity businesses and other global bodies are also providing funds for this purpose. The chief among them is Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which had opened its coffers a short while before the COVID 19 scare overtook the world and it is now offering funds for such ventures on a much larger scale (for detailed information on this see my article here).
There is little doubt that journalism has its structural limitations. But it is also true that it has entirely failed in discharging its duties even within those limitations. This is not the place to go into the details thereof but suffice it to say that things would have become crystal clear had the media taken the trouble of compiling the number of deaths in the world due to other contagious and non-contagious diseases and presenting an estimate of how many more people would die of these diseases due to the lockdown.
Implications of Big Tech’s bans on books
After an overview of how media fared during this crisis, let us have a look at what happened to a book written by Alex Berenson, a former ‘investigative journalist on business issues’ with the New York Times. In his book Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns he has compiled the facts put out by different countries and health and medical bodies which are not finding place in media due to some mysterious reason. These facts show that Covid 19 is much less dangerous than what is being suggested. Read the first 1000 words of the book on the writer’s website here. This book was banned by Amazon.
Berenson had covered for the New York Times the invasion of Iraq and the industries producing dangerous medicines. After bidding goodbye to the New York Times in 2010, he became a fulltime novelist. His novels were well-received and one of them made it to the bestsellers list of New York Times. His John Wells Series of novels sold more than 10 lakh copies. Most of them were e-books.
Berenson describes himself as Amazon-writer. That is because a major chunk of the sales of his books came through Amazon’s e-book store, Kindle. This new and extremely economical technique of publishing books opened new doors of opportunity for many writers like him who did not have a long-standing in the literary world.
In 2019, the global market share (sum of the income by sales) of e-books was 18 per cent while they formed 36 per cent of the total number of books sold in the world. According to number-crunchers, the market share of Amazon (Kindle) in e-books was between 67 and 83 per cent.
In 2019, the total size of the e-books market was 18.13 billion US dollars which is expected to rise to 23.12 billion US dollars by 2025 – this when the world over, poverty and starvation is expected to grow with a simultaneous erosion in the purchasing power of the middle class.
The market for e-books is expected to grow at a scorching pace due to the emergence of better gadgets for reading them and also due to the growing digitalization of books and other documents. During the lockdown, not only did the common readers switch to e-books and audiobooks but even the universities, schools and other institutions were forced to include them in their libraries.
E-commerce companies have tightened their hold not only over the market of e-books but also printed ones. Amazon has a monopoly in this sector, too.
These figures need to be taken into account to understand how the sales of any book can be impacted if Amazon chooses to ban it.
Alex Berenson published his book as an e-book on Amazon on 4 June 2020. It was lapped up by the people but soon Amazon banned it. In an e-mail to Berenson, Amazon said that the book violated Amazon’s content-related norms.
Berenson replied to Amazon but as is it won’t, the e-commerce giant did not respond. An exasperated Berenson wrote about on his Twitter account, where Elon Musk happened to read it.
Musk is the founder and CEO of two mega corporations – SpaceX (a space transport company) and Tesla (an electric vehicle and solar power equipment manufacturer). The objectives of his companies include reducing global warming through sustainable energy solutions and establishing human colonies on Mars. Though Tesla or SpaceX are not direct business rivals of Amazon but Musk and Jeff Bezos are long-standing rivals in the field of space industry.
While writing his book, Berenson had tweeted a small excerpt from it, which was re-tweeted by Musk.
Musk was opposed to lockdowns from the very outset. According to some media reports, insisting that his companies should continue to function during the lockdown, Musk had told his employees that they were “far less likely to die from COVID 19 than car crashes”.
Deeply upset by Amazon’s decision to ban Berenson’s book, Musk, tagging Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, tweeted, “Time to break up Amazon. Monopolies are wrong”.
This got Amazon cracking and an email was promptly dispatched to Berenson saying that the sale of his book was being resumed. Since then, for more than two weeks now, the book is on Amazon’s best-sellers list, leaving well-known authors miles behind. Millions of copies of the book have been sold and more importantly, no organization or expert has so far contradicted the contents of the book.
What would have happened had one multi-billionaire not opposed the decision of another multi-billionaire to ban the book? Perhaps, we would never have known about the existence of the book.
E-books/audiobooks are gaining popularity at a fast pace. But this also means that the companies can always remove any book purchased by the readers from their library. And they have done that in the past. This is not true of the traditional printed books, which cannot be taken away from you once you have bought them.
The dangers of the digital economy and digital currency should also be seen in the same context. In a digital economy, the people would have nothing in their hands. This virtual economy would lead to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few capitalists. And they would be in a position to even challenge the sovereignty of the nations.
Science and religion
The deliberately-created confusion over facts related to COVID-19 has left most of us puzzled and bewildered. We have suspicions about the facts that are being bandied about by our governments and by organizations like the WHO. But we are hesitant to air our suspicions from public platforms. And that is because we have never tried to blend academic specialization with common sense and experience-based knowledge. We have forgotten that common sense cannot be bought and that the authenticity of personal experience is beyond question. On the other hand, expertise is basically on sale. And the so-called pure sciences are not useless but downright dangerous for humanity.
Here, it would be pertinent to recall an incident of the year 2007. It is relevant because one player in it is linked with the Imperial College, which, through its so-called models has exaggerated the lethality of COVID while the name of the other player is being consistently mentioned in newspapers for its research projects.
At that time, Professor David King of Imperial College, London, was the chief scientific advisor to the British Government. He was trying to obtain the sanction of the government for use of genetically modified (GM) food grains while many in Britain were opposing it. The opponents were saying that on the basis of their experience, they were sure that genetically modified food grains were not only harming their health but would also hurt the environment and biodiversity. King’s argument was that scientific studies had proved that GM good grains were safer than the natural, non-GM food grains and that the technology for genetically modifying food grains would help feed the growing population of the world.
When British journalists raised the concerns of the people, David King flew off the handle. He launched an acerbic attack on media institutions for raising questions on science. He said, “Science is society’s sacrament to its own future. The degree to which we pay homage to scientists and science is a reflection of society’s health.”
The reaction of Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of Lancet, the oldest and one of the leading medical journals of the world, to King’s statement is even more relevant today. Writing in The Guardian dated 11 December 2007, Horton said “King takes his faith in science into the realms of totalitarian paranoia…He should understand that Science does not exist in an abstract world of experiments and equations. Science is part of the anarchy of democratic debate.”
Subsequently, we in India learned from our experience that GM food grains are not only harmful to the health of the consumers, to the environment and to biodiversity but they also cause the ruin of the farmers. In the recent years, thousands of farmers in the country have been forced to commit suicide because of the BT cotton seeds. India and other countries have banned the production of GM food grains because of the problems they cause. The British Government also did not accept King’s advice and GM food grains are banned in that country to date.
‘Science’ is a stage in the perpetual growth of human knowledge. In other words, it is the name given to the condensed form of the knowledge available to us today – it is the practical side of knowledge. Only debates and discourses can lead to the development of science that is ethical and meant for the welfare of the people.
Science was born and developed in the same way as religion was born and developed. At one time, religion was also the condensed form of the knowledge that was available then. It was the practical side of knowledge. Problems arose when the dominant and powerful sections of society began using religion to serve its selfish interests. What had happened with religion then is happening with science now.
Some rich persons and powerful institutions want to bring the entire human race under their thumb with the help of the new scientific discoveries. Organizations associated with them appear to partners in creating a disproportionate fear of COVID.
There is no question of opposing or supporting science or religion. Who would like to call himself irreligious? Who would like himself unscientific?
But we did fight to free religion from the clutches of the priestly class, the feudal lords and the kings and some of us even took the risk of calling ourselves, atheists. To get rid of religion, some declared themselves spiritual while others said they were in quest of truth.
Some people look for science in religion and superstitions. For instance, those trying to find a cure for COVID in cow urine. This is, of course, foolish and may have implications that have the potential of hurting the human race. But while looking for science in religion is bad; trying to turn science into religion is worse. After all, didn’t those who were seeking to treat COVID patients with Gau Mutra hit the streets during lockdown and used sticks to enforce ‘science’?
Just as religion was used for political purposes, today, science is being used to serve political interests.
An editor friend of mine told me that he was a bit reluctant to publish my article as he has faith in science. I want to tell him that there is nothing more unscientific than faith. We had discovered science because we hoped that it would inspire us to search for the truth using reason and logic. If we have developed faith in science, there is something wrong somewhere.
To protect humanity, we would have to launch a battle for freedom from science. Saying that one has purely scientific thinking is tantamount to saying that one is a religious fanatic. Today, when science is turning into a religion, we would have to sceptical of its claims of building a better world.
We all need to reflect that when debates and discussions were being barred in the name of COVID; when crores of people were being pushed into hunger, unemployment and misery in the name of expert advice and science; at that time, what was our duty? Did we do our duty? There is still time. Do we intend to fulfil our responsibility; do we want to discharge our duty?
(Translation from Hindi: Ekta News and Features)
[Journalist and critic Pramod Ranjan’s interests lie in subaltern studies and development of modernity. Sahityetihas Ka Bahujan Paksha, Bahujan Sahitya Ki Prastavna, Periyar Ke Pratinidhi Vichar and Shimla Diary are among the books penned by him. Currently, Ranjan is an Assistant professor in Rabindranath Tagore School of Languages and Cultural Studies of Assam University. ]