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Avoidable Fiasco

The recent fiasco over the Central government’s fiat to combat fake news was entirely avoidable, leaving the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) scrambling to limit the damage. It began with a press release issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on April 2, expressing concern over increase in “instances of fake news across various mediums, including print and electronic media”. It then outlined revised guidelines to punish jourlists responsible for ‘creating or propagating the fake news’. Once a complaint is registered, the jourlist’s accreditation would be suspended for 15 days as the Press Council of India (PCI) or the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) decides about the truth of the complaint. If publication or telecast of fake news is confirmed, the accreditation of the jourlist would be suspended for six months in the first violation, for one year in case of second violation, and permanently cancelled for third violation. Thankfully, saner counsel has prevailed at the prodding of the Prime Minister, and the circular has been withdrawn. As the controversy swirled, various jourlists’ associations and political parties posed some basic questions, viz. whether fake news as an offence has been properly defined in legal terms, who decides whether a particular news is fake or not, what will the government do if ill-motivated complaints are filed against jourlists for doing stories unpalatable to powerful and influential quarters. It has been pointed out that various ruling parties are themselves generators of fake news, what with all their spin and propaganda, while they also have much at stake to stop ‘pesky jourlists’ from digging up uncomfortable facts! It is true that while fake news as a phenomenon is particularly strong on social media, many rogue websites have been identified for pushing fake news with sinister agenda. Sections of mainstream media too have laid themselves open to blame by going overboard in dissemiting obviously dodgy news without verifying facts. There have been embarrassing instances last year when mainstream media excitedly broke news like Arundhati Roy’s purported comment that the ‘70-lakh strong Indian army can never defeat the azadi gang in Kashmir’, the ISIS putting a price on the head of Hindu girls so as to convert them, or Nostradamus four centuries ago predicting the rise of rendra Modi. Hopefully there will be sincere and meaningful deliberations among all stakeholders as to what to do about this mece, considering the potential of fake news to create mayhem in the country. Surely it should call for deep introspection in the jourlist community, already going through much churning over ethical issues related to paid news, embedded reporting, proximity to power, compulsions due to accelerating corporatisation of media houses and much else. Jourlist associations are also distrustful of what they see as government attempts to take control of bodies like the Press Council, and are opposing proposals to arm these bodies with greater powers in the me of combating fake news. Professiolly speaking, distinguishing fake news from real ought to give the jourlist community the opportunity to re-assert its role as trustworthy gatekeepers and agenda setters for the wider community. This besides, it needs to be asked why the government this time saw little need to throw the question of fake news open to the media, as well as to the public at large. Compare this secretiveness to how governments in France, Germany, Italy and several other countries are going about building public responses to legislations seeking to rein in social media from disinformation through its platforms. What is clear is that fake news has to be fought with a well planned strategy across several fronts, requiring appropriate monitoring, laws and IT solutions. It is not a war to be pursued like President Dold Trump is doing against major sections of US media. He has announced ‘fake news awards’ for the likes of CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time, but is mired in serious allegations of collusion with Moscow to swing the US presidential elections, as well as a series of indiscretions. Trump’s anti-fake news crusade is not something the ruling dispensation in India needs to adopt, for lurking within it is a serious threat to the freedom of speech and expression and a free press.

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Ankur Kalita