First it criminalized dissent on social media, now it seeks to regulate ‘tiatr’, Goa’s traditional satirical performances But the malaise is deeper, says FREDERICK NORONHA. Pix: a tiatr satirist.
Posted/Updated Saturday, Aug 09 15:20:18, 2014

Goa can claim to be one of the capitals for social media use in South Asia.  Yet, the tiny region of 1.5 million is currently finding itself at the vortex of some strange developments.  This has been brought on by a mix of right-wing politics, growing sensationalism in the media itself and many months of bitter politicking and the polarisation that revved up during the run-up to the 2012 Assembly elections or earlier.

In recent weeks, Goa has repeatedly made the headlines for controversies related to curbs on social media or the more traditional community media.  Even mainstream media views itself as coming under fire.

The latest is a circular mandating that Konkani theatre artistes (called tiatrists, and who stage a popular form called ‘tiatr’) would not level any “criticism of the government, Ministers, MLAs/VIPs” during their performances in the Ravindra Bhavan at Margao, the main State-run theatre and cultural space in South Goa.

Since the ascent to power of the BJP lead by its IIT-educated technocrat-chief minister Manohar Parrikar, there have been repeated run-ins with the media as well as political parties and citizens.  The media has itself become news.  Parrikar, sometimes praised for efficiency, is also a man of strong views. The Congress, the other party to dominate power in Goa in the recent past, tends to more successful in getting media-houses and journalists on its side, even if it has faced more criticism, which it mostly just ignores.

Crackdown on social media

Some in the social media see a trend in official actions against emerging voices emerging there.  Recent cases have included:

* Police questioning of Devu Chodankar, whose case drew attention across the country, for his anti-Narendra Modi comments.  This happened in May-June 2014, around the time the election results with a new mandate were emerging in New Delhi.

* An FIR (first information report) against an NRI, Savio Almeida, for depicting on Facebook a politician and local legislator (Sudin Dhavalikar) in a pink women’s swimsuit.  Dhavalikar had earlier made contentious comments about women wearing bikinis.

* The launching, in late May 2014, of a group labelled ‘Social Media Not a Forum to Spread Hatred’, which said it would keep track of various “defamatory” posts that had been placed on social networks, and would act as a “watchdog”.

Even ‘alternate’ media under fire

It’s not just the social media that is complaining of pressures, but the alternate, traditional and community-based media too.  Such as the century-old local Konkani theatre, tiatr, that has been a vibrant and politically opinionated form of entertainment.

While local elites are often dismissive of it, eminent scholar, the late Dr Pramod Kale, had called it “a form which is rooted in the working class and lower middle class Goan Catholic population living in Goa or outside expressing their trials and tribulations, hopes and aspirations.”

The circular banning or restricting any criticism of the government, ministers and MLAs or VIPs, is the latest attempt to curb its freedom and creativity. Once the opposition made an issue of it, officials said it was just a draft.

But the precursor to this official circular is the more serious threats of attack from right-wing groups. On Aug 8, 2014, a South Goa-based ‘tiatrist’ Tousif Shaikh aka Tousif de Navelim said that he had received “several phone calls” threatening him. He kept updating the situation over facebook.  This allegedly came, he said, from Hindutva associations warning him against releasing his latest tiatr ‘Atankwadi Goeant Naka’ (Goa doesn’t need terrorists).

Police registered a non-cognisable offence but the warning is clear, officially and unofficially : conform or else !

Journalists not spared too!

Earlier this year, yet another media protest erupted when journalists took offence to chief minister Manohar Parrikar questioning the credibility of poorly educated and ill-paid mediapersons!

News reports later said the chief minister had expressed regret over his comments. Copies of a statement made available by the journalists’ union incidentally via the social media (Twitter), saw the CM saying he was “surprised to understand from our meeting held today and your email that I had cast aspersions on mediapersons, which is  indeed quite unfortunate.”

The IIT- educated Parrikar went on to reiterate his comments that news reports tended to reflect the understanding of the reporter “who is usually a graduate and a common-man”.  But he added, by way of qualification : “However I express my regrets if the incident has hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Sure, one can argue that the Chief Minister was well within his rights to comment on the media, just as they do on him and other wings of government.  After all, the media is not above criticism. But to question the media’s right to criticism him on grounds of education and class is arrogant and dismissive.

Dissent in cyber-media space

Perhaps the growth of such controversy has to be seen in the context of the growth of the cyber-media in India’s smallest State.  In part due to its active diaspora population, and because of the small size of the media here till quite recently, social media in Goa has been active for the longest time.

This year itself, three of the first cybermedia initiatives, all launched way back in 1994, complete twenty years since they were launched.  (All the cyber media initiatives were not continually active, but Goa-Web/GoaCom from the US/Goa, GoanWorld from Kuwait, and Goanet, which was launched in Boston, are still around with new attempts underway to remain active.) The State has a large number of other online networks, linking green campaigners, village groups, journalists, professional bodies, some of which were among the early online initiatives nationwide.

Over the years, it has been impossible to ignore the power of the social media. While Congress politicians and those of some smaller parties have openly participated in the same, BJP supporters have taken up initiatives with more tech-savvy support.  Some Facebook groups claiming large membership are also seen to be dominated by active supporters of one or the other major parties in the electoral fray.  Often debates get politicised and result in bitter name-calling, or even get polarised on the basis of religion or party.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the Congress alleged a couple of officials were “actively promoting BJP on social media despite drawing government salaries”.  The Election Commission of India asked the CM Parrikar’s joint secretary Siddharth Kuncalienkar and his special assistant Giriraj Pai Vernekar to remove posts promoting the BJP on Facebook.

But, more effectively, fans of the Big Two parties have been overactive in attempting to set the tone of the debate in cyberspace, one way or the other.  This involvement becomes clear only later, as some have sought party tickets to contest elections, or been appointed to government posts.  In cyberspace too, supporters of political parties are known to target — or discredit — journalists and others whose viewpoint they found critical of their parties.

In its earlier tenure in power in Goa (2000-2005) too, the BJP had some run-ins with the Press here.  While it attempted to woo a section of the media, its relationship with the Fourth Estate as a whole has been bumpy.  This was both because it probably has more fixed ideas about how the media should operate, and also because its political opponents have been quick to rake up controversy on this score.

On its part, the BJP itself has been agile in raking up controversy via the social media and the media against the Congress when the latter was in power here, sometimes effectively setting the agenda, directly or otherwise.  So, its run-in with the media has come as something of a surprise.

Roots of dissent: mining and new political lobbies

But of course, the root of the social media ferment is really about shifting arenas of power. Goa is undergoing a phase of aggressive media growth, with expansion specially visible among media operations linked to industrial (particularly mining) and political lobbies. Caste and community dynamics also intersect with local politics, sometimes in subterranean and little-noticed ways.

The shift has also affected professional journalism. Once trade unionism held sway among journalists here and May Day was important on their working journalists’ calendar; today, in a reflection of changing trends, more importance is given to the commemoration of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s anniversary in early August, emphasizing the more ambiguous aspects of Tilak’s socially conservative message.

To make it to the headlines nationwide, the small State also needs a regular quota of controversy.  This need for sensation might not discriminate between who is in power.  But this only gets fuelled with the bitter politicking in what has become a two-horse race — with BJP and Congress dominating State power, with sometimes even the same politicians changing labels and switching between parties effortlessly.

In the process, free speech becomes a pawn in this game, with chilling consequences.


Read more here-