The prime minister has put the lid on a disturbing episode by ordering the withdrawal of a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting release, which announced that journalists peddling “fake news” would have their accreditation with the Press Information Bureau suspended immediately on receipt of a complaint, pending an investigation, and that repeat offenders would lose it permanently.
At about the same time Smriti Irani, I&B minister, from whose mind the idea had sprung fully armed and ready for trouble, climbed down and offered to engage with media bodies and organisations to check fake news and “uphold ethical journalism”. This gesture was merely conciliatory, tacitly acknowledging the embarrassing reality that her step had backfired.
With elections on the horizon, her announcement amounted to a barefaced attempt to muzzle the press and chill dissent. It betrayed a mindset that seeks control through blacklisting, a primitive strategy presumed to have been left behind in the dilapidated ruins of the Emergency. Indeed, if the good minister had consulted some of her colleagues who were incarcerated by Indira Gandhi for standing up to fake news of that day, they would have saved her some embarrassment.
The ministry also undermined the Press Information Bureau, which has a standardised process of accreditation based on organisational credentials. Particularly irksome was the ministry’s strategy of monopolising the right to suspend to itself, while imposing upon the News Broadcasters’ Association and the Press Council of India the problematic responsibility of defining fake news.
Irani’s argument that these two associations, and not the government, were the arbiters is a specious one. As the Editors’ Guild of India points out, the manner in which the Press Council and the accreditation panel have been constituted this time raises questions of fairness and transparency.
Irani does not stand alone in the hall of shame. While the Supreme Court has steadily expanded the rubric of press freedom since the Emergency, various governments have tried to trammel freedom of the press. The first chapter of this sordid saga concerns Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous anti-defamation Bill of 1988, which sought to control the fallout of the Bofors scandal by targeting “criminal imputation” and “scurrilous writings” — a conveniently vague phrase.
Under UPA 2, Irani’s predecessor Manish Tewari had spoken of the need for a “common examination” and licensing for journalists. And, most recently, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan brought an ordinance protecting serving and former judges, magistrates and public servants from investigation without prior sanction, and barring the media from reporting until the investigation was completed.
All these interventions had to be abandoned or were withdrawn. If only Irani had done her homework, listened to the range of voices on this very real issue of fake news, especially voices that ask questions, she would have realised why her cure for fake news was more damaging than the disease. And she would have spared the prime minister the job of damage control.