The Central government has for the time being withdrawn its efforts to curb the free press in the name of fake news following an uproar.
But it is a fact that the media muzzling law has been like a sword dangling precariously over the media. The discriminatory stance of the Centre and the BJP which leads the government proves that the apprehensions of the media associations including the Editors’ Guild, is not out of place. i.e. the regulatory legislation which the BJP government upholds as a noble intention of separating the facts from fiction in news, is a shameful move to curb the fourth pillar of democracy.
In the wake of increasing instances of fake news in different forms of media including the print and electronic media, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I &B) had issued a circular on Monday amending the guidelines for accreditation of journalists. According to the order, on receipt of any complaints of fake news, they would be referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) if it pertains to print media and to News Broadcasters Association (NBA) if it relates to electronic media. The agencies should submit the report within fifteen days. Till then the accreditation of the journalists facing the allegation, will be suspended. If the agencies confirm the publication or telecast of fake news, the accreditation of the journalists will be suspended for six months for first violation, for one year in the case of second violation and it will be cancelled permanently in the event of a third violation. As soon as the order was issued on Monday, it triggered controversies. Minister of I&B Smriti Irani had tweeted about starting a discussion on the matter with the journalists and media houses. It was amidst this that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on Tuesday informed that the circular issued by the I& B Ministry, was withdrawn. The circular also says that the complaints related to fake news would be handled by PCI.
With protests against the media muzzling rules coming even from those media organizations that the government considered to be on board with it, the prime minister chose to put the blame on Smirti Irani and the Department of I&B, thereby appearing as media's savior. However, anybody who is aware that all of Smriti’s earlier actions have been with Modi’s knowledge and blessings will not be ready to easily digest it. With only a year left for the general elections, the Centre has been upset due to the signs of anti Modi-BJP wind blowing in different parts of the country. After coming into power, and ever since campuses started rising in revolt, whenever popular anger was raging in the open, BJP has a record of trying to educate the media about discipline and fairness. Several of them have been led by Smriti. The Minister has been raising her opinions about the need of a law to contain digital news for quite some time. It was lately that the Centre made attempts to persuade the media when the CBSE question paper leak and the Dalit agitation against the Supreme Court verdict created a furore. The media generally evaluates this as a draconian experiment carried out by Modi to know about the consequences. Even after withdrawing the controversial circular, the Centre maintains that the government-controlled PCI could be made to intervene and the confusion as to how and who will provide the definition of fake news, is still going on.
There is something enigmatic too in this sudden crusade against fake news. On 29 March the Karnataka police arrested the publisher of online portal ‘Post card news' Mahesh Vikram Hegde, for giving provocation through fake news with intent to cause riot among the people. His fake news consisted in portraying a motor bike accident, in which a Jain muni was hurt, as an incident of a Muslim youth attacking the monk, in order to establish that in Siddaramaiah's Karnataka no one had any security. But the BJP leaders turned up en bloc to save him, including a central minister, party MP, national secretary and a leader of Mahila Morcha. It was not for nothing: among the 70,000 Twitter followers of Hegde, who was helping the BJP through fabrication of fake stories and their dissemination, the prime minister was one. And some prominent ministers of the central cabinet were the ones facilitating everything for the portal. It is amidst running of such media outfits that indulge in similar spread of communal poison that the BJP has come out casting its net against fake news. The concern in all this is not unfounded: that vesting the right to differentiate between truth and fake, with government-controlled agencies, is aimed at interpreting them in line with the will or displeasure of the government; especially so when the BJP's governing debacles are coming to light one after the other each day.