Order Issued After Arrest of Pro-BJP Fake News Peddler Was Seen As Targeting Free and Critical Media Voices; Will the Withdrawal of I&B Order Now Give a Free Hand to pro-BJP Fake News Industry in an Election Year?
NEW DELHI – What Prime Minister Narendra Modi did Tuesday morning has been rarely seen in the last four years – cancellation of an order of a Union Ministry by PM himself in less than 24 hours.
Late Monday night, the Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry had issued an order amending the guidelines for accreditation of journalists in order “to regulate fake news.” The order said that if the Press Council of India / News Broadcasters Association confirmed (agencies were given 15 days for confirmation) that a certain news item was fake, then the accreditation of the concerned journalist shall be suspended for a period of 6 months in the first violation and for one year in the case of 2nd violation and in the event of 3rd violation it would be cancelled permanently. But the government was hugely condemned by top editors of the media industry over the specific provision that mere on a complaint by anyone about “fake news”, accreditation of the accredited journalist will be immediately suspended.
Commenting on the order, Shekhar Gupta, a former editor of The Indian Express newspaper, said it was “a breathtaking assault on mainstream media”, and urged journalists to resist it.
Senior journalists said the move was designed to give the government more control over the news, adding that suspending a journalist’s access to government events and news conferences before the completion of inquiry was completely unfair.
Facing the barrage of criticism, I&B Minister Smriti Irani on Tuesday morning tweeted that she was open to suggestions on how to modify the order and tackle fake news. But around 10 minutes later, the Prime Minister’s Office announced cancellation of the controversial order.
Interesting Background of I&B Order
By linking fake news with accredited journalists, the government was sending an impression that these journalists are involved in such acts. But the matter of fact is that in recent months, pro-BJP news portals have been found involved in creating and spreading fake news items. Just four days ago (29th March), the Bangalore police had arrested Mahesh Vikram Hegde, the editor of website Postcard News for publishing a fake report that Muslims had attacked a monk from the Jain faith. This website had earned notoriety for creating and spreading fake news stories. There are several other such websites.
In this backdrop, the I&B Ministry order targeting accredited journalists was very interesting. The order did not talk about such websites or those persons who are not accredited and are involved in fake news peddling.
The order had potential to target genuine journalists and media platforms who write and publish stories that may be uncomfortable for the ruling party or the government.
And this is evident from a development in the last couple of days. According to The Indian Express, at least 13 Union Ministers retweeted a news link of a little-unknown dubious website wherein two fact-based stories of the esteemed English daily were termed as “fake news”. One story was about killing of Dalit youth for riding a horse in Gujarat – this story was based victim’s father’s FIR and district Police chief’s comments. Another story was about Dalai Lama’s event, and this was based on none other than Cabinet Secretary’s note.
Now as the controversial I&B Ministry order, which already did not talk about fake news websites, has been withdrawn, will the real fake news peddlers have more free hand to run their nefarious agenda?