A day after the Indian government's Information & Broadcasting ministry announced that it would revoke journalists' accreditation if they were found to be spreading "fake news", the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has struck down the new rules. This came after widespread criticism of what was seen as an attempt to muzzle the press.
"It seems to be an insidious and not-so-clever way of controlling the media," said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta to HuffPost India. Thakurta, a journalist with over 40 years of experience and president of the Foundation for Media Professionals, likened it to a less-blatant version of Rajiv Gandhi's defamation law proposed in the mid-1980s. "All governments are intolerant towards criticism, and this government is especially intolerant."
The union ministry of information and broadcasting had issued a late-night press release on Monday that any complaints of fake news would be sent to either the Press Council of India (PCI) (in case of newspapers) or News Broadcasters Association (NBA) (in case of television news). There is no similar statutory body for digital news organisations yet. According to the new rules, accreditation for these journalists would be suspended for a fortnight as the regulatory bodies surveyed these complaints, and if found true, the journalists would lose accreditation for six months or more.
The criticism to this amendment in accreditation rules was swift and relentless, prompting the PMO on Tuesday to withdraw the I&B ministry's press release and to say that the issue of fake news should be only handled by the Press Council of India.
"Clearly, they underestimated the backlash," tweeted Hindustan Times editor-at-large Rajesh Mahapatra. "That said, the fight against #FakeNews must go on, and that fight has to be fought by journalists."
Even though India has a massive fake news problem, the I&B ministry's move was seen as a way of cracking down on press freedom, and to blacklist journalists who reported unfavourably on government dealings. It also did not take into account fake news propagated by non-journalists, and perhaps most worryingly, by government officials, timeand again.
"The strong-arming of journalists is a grave threat to democracy," Chinmayi Arun, assistant professor of law at National Law University Delhi and a member of UNESCO India's Press Freedom committee, told HuffPost India. "The Indian Supreme Court has made it clear that press freedom is a part of our constitution. The government must respect this."
Senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Ahmed Patel suggested that the new rules could be misused to harass honest journalists.
3. Is it not possible that motivated complaints will be filed to suspend accreditation until enquiry is on?— Ahmed Patel (@ahmedpatel) April 2, 2018
4.What is guarantee that these guidelines will check fake news or is it an attempt to prevent genuine reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to establishment?
CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury condemned the move, calling it "duplicitous".
We fought for Press freedom during the Emergency, then against the Defamation Bill. We condemn this duplicitous move of Modi govt 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. pic.twitter.com/0pHAwuiYC5— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) April 3, 2018
Journalists called the I&B ministry's decision "anti free press". Others called it "another assault on the already emasculated mainstream media". The Editor's Guild of India, the Indian Women's Press Corps and the Press Club of India called an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the I&B notification and it's effect on press freedom in India, which continues to be despicable, after sliding down further last year.
Of arrogance and self-doubt! https://t.co/D5Z8YEV4Ej— M K Venu (@mkvenu1) April 3, 2018
"This appeared to be a brazen attempt to control the media under the façade of controlling 'fake news', and target critics of the government," said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India, in a press release.
"Several government spokesperson have been known to disseminate disinformation which they should know to be false, on social media and on television. This dangerous trend needs to stop."
Last year, international human rights experts including the UN Special Rapporteur of Freedom of Expression and Opinion deplored attempts by governments to cause "interference in the operations of public and private media outlets, including by denying accreditation to their journalists", according to Amnesty.
"Minister Smriti Irani should give up attempts at covertly controlling media and clean up own house," said Thakurta. "There are provisions within Indian law to check or counter disinformation... The way it is being done is not the way."
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Paranjoy Guha Thakurta as "former president of the Foundation for Media Professionals". He is the current president. The error is regretted.)
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