Under the guise of checking ‘fake news’, govt will now have the kind of hold over journalists it never had before.
For a government whose senior leaders were jailed fighting for free speech during the Emergency and which champions the cause of freedom of the press, the backdoor move to gag the press is both unfortunate as well as perplexing. On the face of it, no one can possibly object to finding ways to root out fake news given it is a global phenomenon, but the government’s new plan does not even cover social media where the bulk of this occurs. By focusing entirely on journalists accredited by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), it would appear the government believes it is they that are the problem. Under the plan, any complaint of ‘fake news’ will be sent to the Press Council of India in the case of the print media and the News Broadcasters Association in the case of the electronic media. While the ‘determination is expected to be completed within 15 days”, once the complaint is registered, the accreditation of the journalist will be “suspended till such time the determination regarding the fake news is made by the regulating agencies”. Imagine how that can be misused – the moment a story that the government or a corporate or anyone doesn’t like, just file a complaint and immediately get the accreditation suspended till such time the complaint is proved right/wrong.
Equally worrying is the fact that no distinction is sought to be made between fake news and news that turns out to be incorrect eventually; in the event, any story that someone finds inconvenient is labelled as fake news. Information & Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani’s tweet referring to “four major fake news busted in a week” illustrates the problem with what has been proposed. The tweet takes you a website thetruepicture where the stories are listed – two of these pertain to The Indian Express, the sister concern of this newspaper. An Express report on violence against a Dalit man for riding a horse is cited as being ‘fake news’ but the fact is the newspaper had a copy of the FIR. It is possible the eventual investigation or the court proceedings after that show the FIR was incorrect, but are journalists to wait for that or to report an event fairly, based on what they know? The second story relates to the government asking ministers/officials to stay away from events honouring the Dalai Lama; given that ministers did attend one function is shown as proof of the story being ‘fake’. Yet, no one denies the Cabinet Secretary’s letter asking officials to stay away.
Other possible cases of abuse relate to, for instance, coverage of government schemes. Is Swachh Bharat working well? One survey, backed by the World Bank, suggests the scheme is working well, in keeping with the data put out by the government. Environment magazine Down to Earth, however, pointed to holes in the survey as well as the government data – it is possible, eventually, its analysis may turn out to be incorrect, but what matters for now is whether it is to considered fake. As with all such previous attempts to gag the press, the reasons for doing it seem rational, but the scope for abuse is so great, prime minister Modi would do well to drop the scheme immediately.