Though the government has withdrawn its gag plan for accredited journalists, it would appear it hasn’t totally given up on its plan to curb ‘fake news’. The latest is the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) ministry setting up a committee to frame rules to regulate news portals and media websites/aggregators—five of the 10 members are secretaries to various ministries and others include representatives of the Press Council of India, News Broadcasters Association and Indian Broadcasters Federation. While it has to be seen what rules/regulations are proposed, it is not clear why the existing structure of checks and balances for newspapers/broadcasters is not good enough. Apart from the usual demand for clarifications/retractions that exist today, as this newspaper has pointed out, there is a need to promote a fact-checking ecosystem—some like FactChecker, AltNews and Boom have already started gaining traction, there is clearly enough space for more. More than that, if the government is indeed serious about checking fake news, the best place to start is with the political parties themselves.
Highly exaggerated/twisted assertions in the heat of pitched election battles is one thing, but this is increasingly becoming commonplace even in peace time as well. Before I&B minister Smriti Irani came up with the gag plan, she referred to genuine news stories as ‘fake news’ in a tweet. An Indian Express report on violence against a Dalit man for riding a horse was cited as being ‘fake news’, but the story was based on the FIR on this. The second story, on ministers/officials being asked to stay away from events honouring the Dalai Lama was alleged to be fake, though it clearly quoted the the Cabinet Secretary’s letter on this. And just the other day, the Congress party distorted a written reply in the Rajya Sabha to allege the government had given a bounty of `2.41 lakh crore to corporates and asked the question, “was this, perhaps, an immediate thank you gift to corporate friends from the then-newly-appointed PM Narendra Modi?”. The reply spoke of the amounts written off by public sector banks after 2014—while loans are written off to ensure the balance sheet provides a more accurate picture of the accounts, this is an accounting entry and does not mean the borrowers are going to get away without the banks making all attempts to get back the money. While the story quoted the Rajya Sabha reply correctly on the loans being written off, the headline—as well as the tone of the story—was that the amount had been waived. While the government can try to stop fake news in the media, who is going to stop the political class?