I&B Ministry withdraws fake news norms after PM’s order

New Delhi, Apr 3: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today ordered the I&B Ministry to cancel its contentious guidelines on fake news after widespread criticism and outcry by journalists and the opposition who dubbed these norms an attempt to “muzzle” the free press.
Soon after, the Information and Broadcasting ministry issued a statement, saying the press release regarding fake news put out by it last night “stands withdrawn.”
In the press release last night, the I&B ministry had announced punitive measures like cancellation of accreditation to contain fake news, a decision which was dubbed by journalists and opposition parties as an attempt to curb press freedom ahead of the general elections due by 2019.
“PM has directed that the press release regarding the fake news be withdrawn and the matter should only be addressed by the Press Council of India,” a senior PMO official said. The Prime minister was also of the view that the government should not interfere in the matter, the official added.
As part of the now-withdrawn guidelines, the ministry had said if the publication or telecast of fake news was confirmed, accreditation of the journalist would be suspended for six months in case of first violation, for one year in case of a second violation and permanently in case of a third violation. However, the ministry press release did not define what is fake news.
The I&B ministry decision drew sharp criticism from opposition parties as well as from various press bodies, while some journalists cautioned it remains to be seen what could be the next move of the government after this failed attempt.
In a strongly-worded statement, the Editors Guild said, “By notifying that the I&B Ministry will initiate such proceedings, the government was arrogating for itself the role of policing the media. It would have opened the door for frivolous complaints to harass journalists and organisations to fall in line.”
It also said that the Guild acknowledges the intervention of the Prime Minister but remains “deeply disturbed” that faith continues to be reposed on the Press Council of India (PCI) to deliver justice on such issues.
“The recent reconstitution of the PCI has been done in a manner that gives rise to doubts over the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire. The Guild’s nominees to the Council were disallowed on technical grounds. Also, the recent reconstitution of the Central Press Accreditation Committee has raised questions over the non-transparent processes being followed by the I & B Ministry as the Guild’s application was ignored,” the statement said.
It further said, “The Guild also points out that ‘fake news’ is a process that cannot be left to governments to initiate action when, on many occasions, the governments and the parties in power – both at the Centre and states – are charged with propagating fake news themselves.”
Veteran journalist H K Dua said, “The press release is totally bogus and it has dangerous connotations. That means, the government wants to control the press. Who decides what is true and what is not true? The I&B ministry will decide what is true and not true? Maximum lies are planted by the government in the media…”.
The Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Press Association and the Federation of Press Clubs of India issued a joint statement expressing their “deep concern” at the I&B ministry order.
The I&B ministry norms had said any complaint of instances of fake news would be referred to the Press Council, if it pertains to print media, and to the News Broadcasters Association, if it relates to the electronic media, for determination of the news item being fake or not within 15 days.
Once the complaint was registered for determination of fake news, the accreditation of the journalist, whoever “created and/or propagated” the fake news, was to be suspended till the determination regarding the fake news was made, the ministry had said.
The Congress said fascism has touched its peak as these norms sought to “muzzle” independent voices through “fallacious” rules. The AAP and CPI-M likened the situation to the ’emergency’.
“Fascism reaches its ‘nadir’ as a shaky Modi Government, caught in its web of lies, seeks to muzzle all independent voices in media through fallacious rules!,” Congress communications in-charge Randeep Surjewala tweeted.
Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel also questioned the government’s attempt to check fake news asking whether it was an attempt to prevent reporters from reporting news uncomfortable to the establishment.
West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee termed the attempt a “brazen and draconian” move to curb press freedom and said it showed the government “has lost its way”.
“What about fake news spread by a political party on a regular basis?” she asked on Twitter without naming any party.
Recalling the fight for press freedom during days of the emergency (imposed for 21 months between 1975 and 1977), CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury said his party condemned the “duplicitous” move.
He accused the government of attacking the media in the garb of fake news over news it finds “uncomfortable”.
AAP leader and former journalist Ashutosh said, “Till now there was an informal emergency on media, except few all were scared, and fell in line. Now formal emergency. Who is govt to regulate press?…”. (PTI)