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India drops move to punish journalists for “fake news”

By CJA President Mahendra Ved

An attempt by the Government of India to issue official guidelines to curb fake news, supposedly purveyed by various media, has prompted widespread criticism by media organisations and opposition political parties, forcing the government to drop the move.

A directive by the Prime Minister’s Office said issues to do with fake news should only be addressed in and by the Press Council of India, the print media ombudsman consisting of retired judges and senior journalists.

The directive came minutes after the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ms Smriti Irani tweeted saying her ministry was “is more than happy” to engage with journalists who want to check fake news.  She said the Press Council and the News Broadcasters Association would decide what was fake and what was genuine. This came after opposition parties and journalists’ bodies said the federal government was trying to muzzle press freedom and suppress uncomfortable news about the government.

The government had earlier said accreditation of a journalist could be permanently cancelled if he or she was found generating fake news.  Press accreditation allows journalists access to government offices and institutions and attend state-organised press conferences.

The crux of the matter is that the prevalence of fake news is not contested, as there has been a marked rise in websites and posts on social media accused of deliberately spreading false information. There have been cases of Photoshopping, and distortion of statements made by public figures.  Another issue is who determines what news is fake.

The new rules leave a lot of room for misuse, said Ahmed Patel, a Congress lawmaker and former chief aide to Ms Sonia Gandhi, who heads the opposition United Progressive Alliance.
“Is it not possible that motivated complaints will be filed to suspend accreditation until an enquiry is on? What is the guarantee that these guidelines will check fake news, or is it an attempt to prevent genuine reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to establishment?” asked Mr Patel in a tweet.

Sitaram Yechury from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) described the government’s move as “duplicitous”.

“We fought for press freedom during the Emergency, then against the Defamation Bill. We condemn this duplicitous move of the Modi government where in the garb of fake news, it will attack all the news it finds uncomfortable. We stand for, and are committed to a free and independent Press,” he said.

A statement by the Editors Guild president Raj Chengappa said the Guild strongly condemned the arbitrary manner contemplated by the ministry to deal with fake news.
He said it was willing to work with governments and media bodies to define ‘fake news’ and act against those found guilty, and that the measures originally proposed  would have opened the doors for frivolous complaints and harassment of journalists.

The media in India is by and large free with “freedom of expression” guaranteed in its Constitution. This also provides for “reasonable restrictions” on the media. The media was placed under censorship during the Emergency in 1975-77, and it has in the past fought off efforts to curb freedom, one of them being by the government of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi which tried to bring in a defamation bill targeting journalists.

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Cheryl Dorall

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