Amid outrage, the government on April 3 withdrew a ministry of information and broadcasting press release from the previous day that said journalists spreading “fake” news would have their Press Information Bureau (PIB) accreditation cancelled.
The withdrawal of the circular was announced barely hours after I&B minister Smriti Irani was inviting suggestions from journalists on Twitter to “together fight the menace of fake news”.
PIB Accreditation Guidelines asking Press Council of India & News Broadcasters Association to define & act against ‘fake news’ have generated debate. Several journalists & organisations have reached out giving positive suggestions regarding the same. 1/2— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) April 3, 2018
.@MIB_India is more than happy to engage with journalist body or organisation/s wanting to give suggestions so that together we can fight the menace of ‘fake news’ & uphold ethical journalism. Interested journalists and/or organisations may feel free to meet me at @MIB_India. 2/2— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) April 3, 2018
The PMO has now clarified that the issue “should only be addressed in the Press Council of India”, leading many to wonder if the backtracking was triggered by the backlash from journalists and others, and if the government departments lacked coordination.
PM Modi asks @smritiirani to withdraw fake news circular. What does that mean? Smriti did this without consulting PMO? Or PM wanted to make it a test case?— nikhil wagle (@waglenikhil) April 3, 2018
The original circular was ambiguous, and left many questions unanswered. It stated: “Now on receiving any complaints of such instances of fake news, the same would get referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) if it pertains to print media & to News Broadcasters Association (NBA) if it relates to electronic media, for determination of the news item being fake or not.
Determination is expected to be completed within 15 days by these regulating agencies. Once the complaint is registered for determination of fake news, the correspondent/journalist whoever created and/or propagated the fake news will, if accredited, have the accreditation suspended till such time the determination regarding the fake news is made by the regulating agencies mentioned above.”
It went on to add: “The accreditation shall be suspended for a period of 6 months in the first violation and for one year in the case of 2 nd violation and in the event of 3rd violation it would be cancelled permanently.”
The term “fake news” is vague, and the fact that the journalists concerned would lose their accreditation even while the allegation was being probed could have led to many motivated, mischievous complaints.
What is fake news? According to Smriti Irani, any news that shows the government in a bad light is fake news? How is fake news to be determined? According to Smriti Irani, once any government authority denies a story, it is fake news. Smriti Donald Z. Trump Irani— Shivam Vij (@DilliDurAst) April 3, 2018
Also, only print and television journalists are eligible for the PIB accreditation, which grants them access to ministeries, government press conferences and functions et al, along with some other benefits such as railway fare concessions and a Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) card.
Make no mistake: this is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media. It’s a moment like Rajiv Gandhi’s anti-defamation bill. All media shd bury their differences and resist this. https://t.co/pyvgymhIkF— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) April 2, 2018
Thus, news websites – an easier medium to peddle fake news because unlike print and TV they do not require a licence to start operations and some seem to operate with fewer editorial controls – were left out of the domain of the circular.
Even among newspaper and TV journalists, not all have the accreditation, and so the circular would have been used more as a tool to target certain journalists than fake news.
Also, while Irani had sought to quash apprehensions of state interference by pointing out that the complaint would be looked into by the PCI and the NBA and not the government, the Press Council of India does have five Members of Parliament – three from Lok Sabha and three from Rajya Sabha – as members serving three-year terms.
For now, the flawed circular stands withdrawn. However, last month too Irani had spoken of the government mulling a regulatory mechanism for online news. Just a few days ago, several BJP members had spoken out in support of Postcard News’s Mahesh Vikram Hegde, who was recently arrested for trying to spread communal enmity through "fake news".
The frequent statements from the I&B minister about the need to regulate “fake news”, and the ruling party’s seemingly ambiguous stance over the menace, is sending out worrying signals.