04/11/2017 2:57 PM IST | Updated 04/11/2017 2:57 PM IST

Is The Government's Crackdown On Fake News Another Way Of Controlling The Media?

Fake news in India is like air pollution in Delhi – toxic, stubborn and growing stronger.

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Front page of newspaper with fake news headline and dummy texts isolated on white

The Collins Dictionary has said the "word of the year" is "fake news" though of course that's two words. It had seen an unprecedented usage increase of 365% since 2016. "Fake news today is legitimate news," it said.

Helen Newstead, the head of language content, said, "Fake news, either as a statement of fact or as an accusation, has been inescapable, contributing to the undermining of society's trust in news reporting."

While Trump may have helped Fake News win the word-of-the-year mantle, India has been quite a fake news factory.

Now, according to Asian Age, the government is contemplating cracking down on fake news.

And about time. Fake news in India is like air pollution in Delhi – toxic, stubborn and growing stronger.

The government has said official advertisements should be denied to outlets that indulge in "unethical reporting", news published out of "bad intent" and "fake news".

The Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity will stop release of advertisements to such publications. Until now the print media policy already stated a newspaper could be suspended from empanelment if it was found to have deliberately submitted false information regarding circulation.

This is not symbolic. Government ads are a major source of revenue for media.

The devil, as always, lies in the details. What is fake news? And who defines it? Who defines bad intent? Clearly one person's fake news is another person's truth or at least their agenda.

Fake news in India is like air pollution in Delhi – toxic, stubborn and growing stronger.

Take a few recent examples:

During the riots in Basirhat, an image of a burning vehicle was sent out as part of a call to #SaveBengal. It was shared by Nupur Sharma, BJP spokesperson from Delhi and used on a flyer for protests. The image, it turned out, was from the 2002 Gujarat riots under Narendra Modi's watch.

BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya has been caught more than once peddling fake news, tweets he has refused to take down even after they have been proved to be false. Once he circulated a mischievously edited video clip of NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar. Another time during the Ram Rahim trial he posted a picture of Rahul Gandhi meeting Sant Niranjan Dass of Dera Sach Khand Ballan but captioned it as "Rahul Gandhi visited Dera Sach Sauda as recently as Jan 2017 to seek support."

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BJP leader Priti Gandhi posted Julian Assange's fake endorsement of Narendra Modi for Prime Minister which Wikileaks had to deny.

These could be honest mistakes. Who among us has not fallen for fake news, especially when it fits our ideological bias? But sometimes it's far more deliberate and it comes from within the government itself, not some mischief monger on social media.

The state-run Press Information Bureau infamously photoshopped a picture of Narendra Modi looking at flood-ravaged Chennai with divyadrishti clarity through his chopper window. And of course, that iconic "rare" picture of Modi sweeping the floor at a 1988 RSS rally turned out to be a well-morphed fake photo.


So when it comes to curing the epidemic of fake news, physician heal thyself.

Does this mean the BJP is the sole offender? Of course, not. But as Rohan Venkataramakrishnan points out in Scroll, the BJP was an "early pioneer when it came to using the internet for organizing and building political awareness" and it also "has been at the forefront of the fake news phenomenon, with top party leaders and ministers occasionally revealing the kinds of dishonest messages that are much more rampant among the base."

ALSO READ: Remember That Photo Of Modi Sweeping The Floor? RTI Reply Has Confirmed It's Fake

Even more worryingly, in a country where the phrase "anti-national"can be used casually as a bludgeon to silence any dissent that is too bothersome, these new DAVP guidelines could just be another weapon to bring media to heel. The Centre has already told the Jammu and Kashmir government to stop advertising in local newspapers that allegedly publish "anti-national"articles "glamorizing terrorists and anti-national elements". Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir told HT that three major newspapers there, including his own, are banned from getting central government ads for eight years because they cover "anti-national" issues, for example, the funerals of militants. "Now they want us to bleed more by telling the state government to stop state advertisements as well," he said.

So when it comes to curing the epidemic of fake news, physician heal thyself.

Government ads have long been part of a strategy to make sure that media does not get too uppity. As other ad revenues shrink government ads gain even more clout.

In 2012, Dhirendra K. Jha dubbed Nitish Kumar Bihar's editor-in-chief because he used the government's ad budget to control and bend the media to his will. The editor of Bihartimes.com said though it has been "No. 1" since inception in 1999, its application for empanelment with the Public Relations Department was kept pending without any "concrete reason" while a site based in Bhopal with tenuous connections to Bihar got government ads. He said he believes it's because his site carries reports related to corruption in the state. An Urdu paper Pindar ran afoul of the government because of a piece by its chief editor that apparently upset the government. The editor, Raihan Ghani, said he was demoted to managing editor and eventually resigned. Curiously the year after Ghani was gagged, the paper's government ad revenues ballooned from 1 lakh to 24 and the year after to 40 lakh.

When the ABP group in Bengal was perceived at loggerheads with the Trinamool government, Mamata Banerjee had banned their newspapers from state libraries. Global campaign group Avaaz said that five West Bengal outdoor advertising agencies and one newspaper group refused to run ads urging Mamata Banerjee to "stop attacking protesters and start attacking the problem" after the gangrape of a young woman in Kamduni. Jayalalithaa's Tamil Nadu was boomtown for lawsuits against media perceived as being overly critical of the government. In five years it filed 213 defamation cases against political opponents, 55 of them against media houses for "derogatory " statements whether it was reporting on the CM's vacations or water scarcity in Tamil Nadu. Its predecessor DMK was a poor second with 40 cases between 2006 and 2011.

The government's idea to crack down on fake news sounds like good news. Who could argue with punishing the purveyors of fake news? But the fear is it will have little to do with promoting free and fair journalism and far more to do with the carrot-and-stick policy that makes media toe the line.

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