Over the last two weeks, no politician has made an adverse comment against a journalist or the media in general. Instead, they are busy rubbishing each other as the pre-election season kicks off. TV news channels remind their viewers every day about the number of days left before the schedule for the general election is announced. And so we wait – the media, politicians and voters – for one more “decisive election”.

As temperatures rise, much of the news will consist of “he said, she said” as politicians and political parties trade charges. But what about “they said”, the people whose voices are drowned out in mainstream media at the best of times? I am referring to the poor, the marginalised, those who are only remembered momentarily by everyone, including the media and politicians, when it is time to vote. What are “they” saying as we head to the election? Surely, given the evident rural distress, growing joblessness and endless atrocities against minorities and the most deprived castes, these are the voices that need to be heard in this election season.

Instead, scan TV news channels, run your eyes over front pages of newspapers, and all you see is political rhetoric. Even if the media is bound to report the public exhortations of politicians, should such coverage blank out everything else?

In this context, should we not ask why, when the prime minister goes around addressing political rallies for his party, does he get so much coverage? Narendra Modi is doing 100 rallies in 100 days in the run-up to the announcement of the election (not the election itself). These are political rallies, not official functions. Yet, they get generous coverage just because he is the prime minister. Is this fair? Does it not give the Bharatiya Janata Party an unfair advantage even before campaigning begins for the Lok Sabha election? It is wishful thinking to expect India’s mainstream media to debate this but it would be useful to know from the readers of Scroll.in what they think.

In my view, in the run-up to the election announcement, one of the tasks before the media is to prepare a report card of the five years of the Modi government, of its promises, its performance. Such an effort would be far more useful to readers and voters than uncritical reports of what politicians say from public platforms.

For instance, with the Opposition constantly reiterating that joblessness is an election issue, people should hear the stories behind the statistics. Anumeha Yadav’s story about workers in Delhi and Aarefa Johri’s on labour laws as they apply to the informal sector, which comprises the majority of workers in India, are examples of the kind of stories that could be written. We need to know the real picture, hear these voices, instead of statistics being tossed about by opposing sides and duly reported in the media.

Although the story by S Senthalir on the survey of 87 villages in Rannebennur Taluka of Haveri district, Karnataka, does not strictly fall within the context of a report card of the government’s performance, it is a chilling expose of the extent of discrimination against Dalits, including the practice of untouchability that is supposed to have been abolished. Most disturbing is the unabashed justification of such vile practices by members of the dominant castes. In 2019, more than 70 years after Independence, how do you feel as an Indian when you read this? I feel ashamed.

Digital platforms like Scroll.in have an advantage. They can choose to pursue such stories and are not bound by the breaking news syndrome that dogs TV news channels and infects print media. Unfortunately, TV is the main source of news for people, followed by print and thereafter digital, if we go by the analysis of the news media and elections in a January 14 article by Rukmini S.

Right to be forgotten

On a different note, a reader wrote requesting that Scroll.in be asked to take down a particular article. She said she “was hoping that out of the compassion in your heart that you might be able to remove this article” so that the person named and his family “will be able to move on and live normal lives without the anxiety of having this brought up on a daily basis”.

The man she was referring to, a senior manager at a private company, had stepped down from his position a year before charges against him of sexual harassment became public knowledge in the aftermath of the #MeToo campaign.

What she was asking for was “the right to be forgotten”, or more accurately, the right to be delisted on internet search engines such as Google. Her request should have been sent to Google because even if one portal removes an article it will continue to show up on others. In India, the discussion on the “right to be forgotten” is still nascent although it finds a mention in the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 prepared by the Justice Srikrishna Committee. This law is unlikely to be passed in the near future given the term of the 16th Lok Sabha is about to end.

But the reader does raise a legitimate point. In Europe and other western countries, this has been the subject of intense discussion ever since a Spaniard, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, decided to sue Google for not removing information about him. In 2009, when he was working as a financial adviser, he discovered that when he googled his name, irrelevant information about his past came up. In 1998, there was a foreclosure notice on his house. The newspaper La Vanguardia published the notice. Thereafter, he paid off his debts. But the notice came up in search engines as the newspaper digitised its earlier print editions. Gonzalez failed to persuade the newspaper or Google to remove the notice and ended by going to the European Court of Justice.

In 2014, the court found in favour of Gonzalez and against Google. It held that personal data should be removed if it was outdated, inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or did not serve any purpose and was not of any public interest. The judgement was hailed in many quarters. But it was also criticised by those who felt it infringed the freedom of the press. The issue continues to be debated in Europe and has thrown up several relevant questions at this time of excessive surveillance and lack of data privacy that affects all of us, even if we are not public figures.

The “right to be forgotten” question calls for more detailed articles by people familiar with the law, and the internet. I am raising it here because as consumers of the internet, this is certainly something we need to think about and discuss. For those interested in the European Court of Justice’s judgement and the process leading up to it, here is an informative article. A useful critique of the judgement is here.

Perhaps readers of Scroll.in have opinions on this “right to be forgotten”. I invite them to write to me.

You can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in.