Media freedom target, not fake news

Media freedom target, not fake news

The temptation to curb or control freedom of expression is inherent in any agency and authority that wields power, and that was the source of the Information & Broadcasting ministry's order to withdraw the accreditation of journalists who report 'fake news'. The order has been withdrawn, ostensibly on the intervention of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), but it is a pointer to the undemocratic instincts and unwise thinking that prevail in the corridors of power.

The order, considered to be the brainchild of I&B minister Smriti Irani, prescribed immediate suspension of journalists' accreditation with the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on receipt of a complaint and permanent cancellation if the offence was repeated. The arbitrary and drastic nature of the punishment is writ large on the order: no writing, if you don't write the 'right' news. It is surprising that such an order of far-reaching import was issued without consultations in the cabinet and with journalists.  It is difficult to imagine an executive order being issued to undermine a basic constitutional right, but this is possible in the highly centralised set-up that exists in the country now.  

It was not fake news that was the target of the order, but news that is not complimentary to and is critical of the government, the ruling party or its associates and leaders. The ministry's argument that the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters' Association were to decide on fake news and it would have only acted on the decisions is specious. As part of its efforts to suborn and control institutions,  the government has turned the Press Council and the accreditation panel friendly bodies, without independence and credibility. Unfortunately, the minister did not have the sense to realise that curbing the media would actually lead to the faster spread and dominance of fake news.  

Fake news is a real and rising threat in India and the whole world, but it is difficult to define and control it. Its purveyors are mostly in the social media and not in the mainstream media, which is generally conscious of its responsibility to the public and its readers and values its credibility. What the ministry tried to do was to curb and police the media on the pretext of controlling fake news. Such attempts have been made in the past. The Bihar Press Bill of 1982, Rajiv Gandhi's anti-defamation bill of 1988 and the Rajasthan government's criminal laws bill of last year are infamous examples. All of them failed, just as the latest move was abandoned. The threat has receded for now, but the media and citizens should maintain their vigil to protect their freedoms. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  

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