Out of the blue, at 9.03pm on April 2, the ministry of information and broadcasting issued an ominous press release. It stated that upon receiving any complaint of a journalist pushing instances of fake news, the Press Council of India (PCI) and the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) — regulatory bodies for the country’s print and broadcast media, respectively — would determine the authenticity or veracity of the news and if it is found to be fake, the journalist’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation could be cancelled.
The next day, on April 3, at 1.27pm, there was another press release by the ministry of information and broadcasting. The PIB tweeted:
Barely a day earlier, soon after PIB’s press release on cracking down on fake news, there was massive uproar on social media. Several prominent journalists and politicians questioned the reasoning behind the decision and the intention of the government.
Union information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani even responded to some concerns. When Congress leader Ahmed Patel tweeted that the new rules leave a lot of room for misuse, Smriti Irani responded to him too. She first said that she was glad to see him awake, and then that the Press Council of India (PCI) and the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) would decide what is fake and what is genuine.
Reports said that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention, the information and broadcasting ministry, on Tuesday, withdrew its press release.
So, what happened in those 19 hours and 36 minutes? Reports said that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention, the information and broadcasting ministry, on Tuesday, withdrew its press release.
Sources said the prime minister had “directed that the press release regarding fake news be withdrawn and the matter only be addressed in Press Council of India”. Tweeting about this U-turn by the government and the information and broadcasting ministry, Rahul Gandhi wrote: “Sensing the mounting anger on the ‘fake news’ notification, the PM orders a U-turn on his own order. One can clearly see a loss of control and panic setting in now.”
This is not the first time a government has made an attempt to gag the media or to prevent it from reporting news that is unfavourable for the establishment, or tried to censor the fourth estate. In the past, several governments have made such attempts, but they were forced to withdraw.
Yet, the present decision of withdrawal has been the quickest in Indian history.
Let’s look at other such decisions by past governments.
Rajasthan’s media gag bill
The Rajasthan government headed by chief minister Vasundhara Raje had promulgated an ordinance on September 6, 2017.
The gag by Rajasthan government lasted for 167 days or five months and 14 days.
It said: “No one can publish or print or publicise in any manner the name, address, photograph, family details or any other particulars which may lead to disclosure of the identity of a judge or magistrate or a public servant against whom any proceeding is pending,” until the 180-day period. Its violation was punishable.
This led to huge criticism of the Vasundhara Raje government. Coming under pressure, on February 20, 2018, her government announced its withdrawal. This lasted for 167 days or five months and 14 days.
Rajiv Gandhi’s defamation bill
The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report on the Bofors scam and VP Singh's victory in the Allahabad by-election rattled Rajiv Gandhi. In utter desperation, he introduced the defamation bill on August 29, 1988 to gag the media.
It sought to create new offences of "criminal imputation" and "scurrilous writings".
In just 24 days, a government with the support of maximum number of MPs in the Lok Sabha, made withdrew the defamation bill.
Faced with unprecedented defiance from the media, and growing opposition from several quarters, he realised that anything short of withdrawal was going to damage the ruling party's sagging fortunes further. On September 22, 1988, Rajiv Gandhi beat a hasty retreat and withdrew the bill. In just 24 days, a government with the support of the maximum number of MPs in the Lok Sabha, made this U-turn.
Bihar presser bill
The Bihar press bill of 1982 had sought to muzzle the media. Then chief minister Jagannath Mishra got this bill passed in Bihar Assembly on July 31, 1982. This law sought to curb supposedly scurrilous writing by making it cognisable and non-bailable.
Any and every magistrate was empowered to take action. But the real intention was to coerce opponents of Bihar government.
It took 355 days or 11 months and 21 days for the Bihar government to reverse its controversial decision.
Owing to hostile reaction from across the country, the bill was withdrawn on July 21, 1983. So, it took 355 days or 11 months and 21 days for the Bihar government to reverse its controversial decision.
Press during Emergency
In 1975, India saw its darkest phase since Independence when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called for Emergency to be declared across the country. On June 25, 1975, the President of India signed the order. From that moment on, civil liberties were suspended, media censored and amendments brought in, threatening to alter the basic character of the Constitution.
The press was muzzled and monitored by censors.
Emergency lasted for a year, eight months and 24 days.
Emergency led to massive protests inside the country as well as international condemnation. On March 21, 1977, the Emergency was withdrawn and civil rights restored. It lasted for a year, 8 months and 24 days.