Media gag-plan goes, but how did it get cleared?

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New Delhi | Updated: April 4, 2018 4:44:04 AM

Given how fast the directive was withdrawn, it would suggest the move was not even debated in the government

smriti irani, information and broad casting ministry, union minister smriti ireani, media gag, social mediaSmriti Irani

Given the tremendous scope for abuse in the media-gag plan the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry came out with, it is just as well that prime minister Narendra Modi asked for the proposal to be dropped, following the outrage over it. Though a BJP spokesperson sought to put a gloss over this, on a TV programme, by describing this as evidence of the prime minister’s ‘large-heartedness’, the latter would do well to use this to examine how decision-making takes place in his government—how was I&B minister Smriti Irani allowed to fly solo on this without getting opinions from other ministries on its ramifications? Sadly, this is not the only instance of such rash decision-making.

In this particular case, though the bulk of fake news originates in social media and mindless retweets/WhatsApp forwards, Irani’s proposal focused entirely on mainstream media journalists accredited by the Press Information Bureau (PIB). Under the plan, any complaint of ‘fake news’ was to be sent for investigation to the Press Council of India/News Broadcasters Association. And, as soon as the complaint was registered, the accreditation of the journalist was to be suspended till the investigation was complete. The possibility that any story could be termed ‘fake news’ was best brought out by the I&B minister’s tweet referring to “four major fake news busted in a week”. Two of the four stories pertained to The Indian Express (IE), the sister concern of this newspaper. An IE report on violence against a Dalit man for riding a horse was cited as being ‘fake news’, but the fact is the newspaper had a copy of the FIR which stated this. The second story related 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, as IE pointed out, it had the Cabinet Secretary’s letter asking officials to stay away. The scope for gagging the media were clearly large.

In the case of Monsanto, similarly, there seems to have been a lot of flying solo. After putting a ceiling on cotton-seed prices, the agriculture ministry put out a notification restricting royalty rates in May 2016, but after an outcry, this was passed off as simply a discussion paper—little was heard of this again. In May 2017, the agriculture ministry tried to intervene in a commercial dispute between Monsanto and a licensee in the Delhi High Court, arguing that GM plants/seeds couldn’t be patented —this is when Monsanto has a valid Indian patent—and said that Monsanto’s claims of its seeds’ properties were exaggerated and nothing but an attempt to extract monopoly rents. The court refused to accept the voluminous submissions and told the government to file a five-page note on this, but the government never filed this.

And, in the case of cattle slaughter, it is still not clear how the the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Market) Rules of 2017 got cleared. These effectively prohibited the sale of, not just lactating cattle, but even buffaloes, steer, heifers and camels since both the seller and the purchaser had to give an undertaking that the animals sold in various cattle fair wouldn’t be slaughtered. While the government was quick to realise this was causing both a serious economic and social crisis—with so-called gaurakshaks using this to further their extortion/crime—it was quick to say the law would be amended, but a year later, there is still no action on this. Whether these are examples of ministers flying solo or of the government simply backtracking, the prime minister needs to probe them further.

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