I&B ministry first issues, then withdraws, guidelines to curb fake news

By Elton Gomes

Twenty-four hours after issuing an amendment to the guidelines for the accreditation of journalists, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting withdrew the notification on Tuesday, following instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The ministry headed by Smriti Irani had issued the guidelines in an attempt to curb fake news.

What were the guidelines?

Irani, who had announced earlier this month plans to develop a regulatory framework for online content, including news websites and social media, revealed the stringent amendment to journalistic accreditation on Monday. According to the now withdrawn statement, if the news reported by a journalist was found to be fake, his or her accreditation could be cancelled.

In the revised guidelines, the ministry had said that all complaints of fake news will be referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) and the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). Following the complaint, the agencies would have a 15-day period to investigate the case and in the meanwhile, the journalists involved would have their accreditation suspended. If the agencies confirmed a case of fake news, the accreditation of those involved would be suspended for six months, and in the event of a third violation, accreditation would be cancelled permanently.

Why was the amendment withdrawn?

While announcing the withdrawal of the revised guidelines, on the PMO’s advice, it was also announced that the PCI will now deal with all instances of alleged fake news. Irani mentioned in a tweet that there had been a debate about the exact definition of ‘fake news’ by journalists and media organisations and welcomed any suggestions about the same.

According to media reports, anonymous sources from the PMO said the decision to withdraw the directive came over fears of widespread public outcry, with several quarters already raised concerns over this being an attempt to curb freedom of speech. However, no entity has issued an official statement about the cause of the withdrawal.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee tweeted about the amendment saying she thinks it is a “brazen attempt to curb press freedom” and “a sure sign that the Govt has lost its way.”

Global phenomena?

The I&B ministry attempts to enact policy on fake news comes amid similar moves by several governments worldwide.

On April 2, the Malaysian government enacted a law that makes the publishing of fake news a punishable offence with a six-year jail sentence. The measure has worried many who see this as an attempt to tackle dissent right before the country goes to vote, as both foreign and local media would be targeted by the law. The ruling is believed to have been undertaken to silence criticism of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration.

Germany also approved a Bill to tackle hate speech, criminal content, and fake news on social media in June last year. As per the bill, social media companies can be slapped with fines up to 50 million Euros if they persistently fail to take down illegal content from their respective websites. Additionally, as per the measure, illegal content has to be taken down within 24 hours after a notification or complaint is received.

Similarly, to promote transparency during election campaigns, Brussels also announced that several websites will have to reveal who is paying for their ‘sponsored content.’

Limited purview

As the Centre plans to annul accreditation for journalists reporting fake news, a sharper focus is required. Firstly, defining what constitutes fake news remains an open process. With the ever-growing scale of digital journalism, guidelines in the field have not been clearly laid out. Previously, Irani stated that a regulatory body will be working on a “code of conduct” for digital agencies. Irani further stated that the information ministry “is already in talks with the concerned stakeholders”.

Furthermore, the now withdrawn guidelines appeared aimed towards “mainstream” journalists who already hold accreditations. The measure did not mention those websites that do not adhere to journalism ethics. The issue of how to put an end to trolls and online trolling that only aims to disseminate hatred in the media space was also not mentioned.

fake newsfree speechjournalismjournalistsmediamedia gagNarendra Modi governmentSmriti Irani