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Govt's fake news order an attempt to suppress us, say journalists

04-April-2018
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Govt's fake news order an attempt to suppress us, say journalists

“When the press was asked to bend, it chose to crawl,” veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani had once famously said about the media during the Emergency period. However, yesterday, in a rare moment, the Indian media stood united against the government’s “draconian order” of suspending accreditation of journalists reporting or propagating fake news and compelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw the notification within less than 24 hours of its announcement.

On April 2, 2018, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a press release, issuing guidelines and giving out powers to the Press Council of India (PCI) and News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) to suspend accreditation of journalists found involved in creating or spreading fake news. The move led to a widespread outrage in the media fraternity, which lashed out at the government for trying to suppress voices critical of it in the name of fake news.

Media Outrage

Such was the media outrage over the issue, that journalists not only criticized the government, but also expressed anger at the PCI, NBA and Editors Guild of India for “not being quick” in condemning the government’s move. Following the severe criticism, the three bodies finally released their statements.

While the Editors Guild of India strongly condemned the “arbitrary” manner contemplated by I&B Ministry to penalize journalists, NBA welcomed both the Prime Minister’s Office’s decision to withdraw the press release and the ministry’s decision to let NBA and PCI “decide all issues relating to fake news”.

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, while speaking at the Press Club of India, warned the media fraternity and said that this was only an attempt by the government “to test the waters.”

“If you look what the circular was, it was purely mala fide, both in law and content,” Sardesai said, adding that it was a poorly drafted circular as neither the PCI (which is formed by an act of the Parliament), nor NBA (which is a voluntary body), were authorized to suspend accreditation of journalists.

Ravish Kumar of NDTV, while asking the government about the actions it plans to take against the ministers who spread fake news, said, “In the name of fake news, the government is trying to suppress media personnel.”

Kumar said that this will ultimately be people’s loss and urged journalists to inform people about how much effort the government is putting in to keep them uninformed.

Similarly, Vinod Sharma, Hindustan Times, while re-introducing journalists to an “old truth”, said, “There is a lot of pressure on media houses through other routes which determine editorial policy, let us not lose sight of that.”

While questioning the independence and neutrality of PCI, The Editors Guild said that its “nominees to the Council were disallowed on technical grounds.”

“Also, the recent reconstitution of the Central Press Accreditation Committee has raised questions over the non-transparent processes being followed by the I&B Ministry as the Guild’s application was ignored,” it further said.

The menace of fake news

Although, there is no proper definition of ‘fake news’ yet, the Press Council of India Chairman Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad, in a statement yesterday, defined it as “news, story, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.”

However, bringing attention to the complexity of the term ‘fake news’, a senior journalist raised doubts and asked, “would quoting wrong data given out by Prime Minister and other ministers be considered as fake news?”

Last year, while interacting with exchange4media, Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website, had said, “In total, there are eight people handling the fake news issue in a country with 1.3 billion people.”

The situation has not changed much since Sinha said this. Even now, the mainstream media, which is itself a victim of fake news, has not taken any major steps to crackdown on it.

Most of the fake news is circulated via social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. The platforms, especially in India, own no responsibility of the content being shared on them.
Vineet Jain, MD, Times Group, in a Twitter post said, “Fake news is news that's been created with CONSCIOUS knowledge that it's not true. It is unacceptable. It's a menace on social media. It is diff from inaccurate reporting, which can be corrected (with apologies if it hurts someone).Editors Guild, NBA should define fake news”

Jamie Angus, Director of the BBC World Service Group, had told exchange4media during an interaction, “Fake news has existed for centuries, but it is only with the rise of news in the digital world that it has been able to reach so many people and bring about a general distrust of facts, whoever is reporting them,”

What’s the cure?

Media experts not only struggle to find a proper definition of the term ‘fake news’, but they also do not have a concrete plan to fight the growing menace.

“You cannot fight fake news unless you know how it is generated, how it is disseminated, how it is distributed and what roles digital platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp and other social media channels play in it,” said Rajesh Mahapatra, Hindustan Times.

Creating and sharing fake content, including text, images and videos, is now easier than ever with there being possibly no way to stop its generation.

“So I would say that the task is not so much to stop generation of fake news, but to restore people’s trust in proven facts,” Angus had said.

However, from his own experience of fulltime fact-checking, Sinha said, “Fact-checking has to be an inherent part of journalism.”

In its efforts to curb fake news, Malaysia recently passed a bill allowing for up to six years in prison for publishing or circulating misleading information. The senate is yet to pass it.

Germany has also passed a law that holds social networks responsible with fines of up to 50 million euros ($60 million) if they do not remove bogus reports and hateful posts promptly.

According to media reports, even Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has launched The Journalism Trust Initiative to certify outlets and news sources so that search engines and social media platforms would give preferential treatment in their algorithms to media outlets that met the standards.

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