The amendment of journalists’ accreditation guidelines by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry on Monday wasn’t the first time that a government in India had tried to encroach upon the freedom of the media. The withdrawal of the order in less than 24 hours, too, was in line with the trend of governments ultimately backing off from the attempt.
From Bihar Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra in 1982 to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, from Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in 2017 to the Narendra Modi government this week, all have felt the need to sternly deal with “fake” or “false” news, and alleged “scurrilous” reporting. There has been a pattern to their complaints — and to the solutions they have proposed — as well as to the political context in which they have tried to shackle journalists.
The BJP is in power for close to four years now, has a full majority of its own, and rules 21 states by itself or in a coalition with partners. It has tended to dismiss news critical of the government as “fake” and, on Monday evening, the I&B Ministry took note of “increasing instances of fake news in various mediums including print and electronic media”. It announced that complaints of fake news would now be referred to the Press Council of India or News Broadcasters Association “for determination of the news item being fake or not”. Once the complaint is registered, the accreditation of the “correspondent/journalist whoever created and/or propagated the fake news” would stand suspended and, if the “determination”, expected to be completed in 15 days, is positive, “the accreditation shall be suspended for a period of 6 months in the first violation”, for one year in case of a second violation, and thereafter “cancelled permanently.”
On Tuesday, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped in personally to scrap the order seeking to punish journalists, and the I&B Ministry issued a statement saying its press release of Monday “stands withdrawn”.
The BJP government of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, also four years in office and enjoying the support of 163 MLAs in the House of 200, brought The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill in October 2017, which sought to gag the media and shield judges and government servants from investigation. The Bill “proposed to make publication of imputations falsely alleging commission of offences by any person an offence”. The Statement of Objects and Reasons said public servants who decide on “matters of vital national interests” need a “conducive and supportive environment” and “hassle-free conditions” to work. The amendments, it said, would protect them “from scurrilous and non-substantiable charges” and “from inquiries and processes of court and police”.
The “main issue”, the Bill said, “is that false and fictitious cases are being brought before the police or judiciary with the intention of maligning, bringing avoidable and unnecessary disrepute or settling scores with an unrelenting public officer”, and “this position needs to be remedied”.
The Bill was introduced in October last year to replace an Ordinance that had been promulgated in the previous month. In the face of intense criticism, however, the Chief Minister told the Assembly on February 19 this year: “We sent the Bill to the Select Committee, we let the Ordinance lapse and today it is not law, what should we withdraw? But we are still withdrawing it.”
Rajiv Gandhi govt
Rajiv Gandhi, who had become Prime Minister with 404 MPs in Lok Sabha, brought in the Defamation Bill in 1988. His government was facing allegations of corruption, and elections were just a year away. The Bill “proposed to make publication of imputations falsely alleging commission of offences by any person as an offence”, and brought within its ambit even a deceased person if the imputation harmed his reputation and was “intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives”. The Bill stipulated jail terms of between two and five years, but also punished false allegations with jail terms of between one month and two years.
The Bill faced powerful opposition from the country’s leading journalists, besides advocates, students, teachers and trade unions. Despite insisting for several weeks that he was convinced of the need for the Bill, Rajiv buckled suddenly in September 1988, and backed off.
Bihar Press Bill
The brainchild of Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra, the Bill was passed by the Assembly on July 31, 1982, two years after the Congress had come back to power with a bang. Mishra had a comfortable majority in the Assembly, and the backing of Indira Gandhi’s strong Congress government at the Centre.
The Bill sought to amend IPC Section 292 and CrPC Section 455 to give the state government authority to prevent publication of “grossly indecent or scurrilous matter or matters intended for blackmail”. It made the offence cognisable and non-bailable, thereby empowering police to arrest journalists and have them tried by an executive magistrate — worse than what was applicable for murder. Convicts could be jailed for up to two years with or without a fine, and a repeat offender was liable to be jailed for up to five years with a fine.
The Bihar Press Bill was withdrawn after a year, after running into protests from the Opposition and media. In 2017, in the context of the Rajasthan gag Bill, Mishra told The Indian Express that he regretted the decision, which he claimed he had taken to keep Indira in good humour “at the peak of her differences with Maneka Gandhi”.
On April 27, 2012, Rahul Gandhi’s close aide Meenakshi Natarajan was scheduled to introduce a Private Member’s Bill in Lok Sabha, which sought to gag the media on the pretext of “protecting national interest”. The Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012, listed in Natarajan’s name, proposed a media regulatory authority — to be selected by the I&B Minister and three government nominees — with power to ban or suspend coverage of an event or incident that “may pose a threat to national security from foreign or internal sources”.
The Bill was seen as an attempt to test the waters. Natarajan did not eventually introduce it, and the Congress officially distanced itself from it.
ATTEMPTS TO PUNISH ‘FALSE’, ‘FAKE’
DEFAMATION BILL, 1988
Rajiv Gandhi govt: WITHDRAWN
“It is proposed to make publication of imputations falsely alleging commission of offences by any person as an offence. Those who make such imputations often have no intention of pursuing the matter… Their only intention (is) to bring a person’s reputation in to question. It is considered necessary to check this tendency…”
PROPOSED PENALTY: 2 years in jail; up to 5 years for subsequent offence.
RAJASTHAN GAG BILL, 2017
Raje govt: WITHDRAWN
“These amendments will provide protection to the public servants from scurrilous and non-substantiable charges… The main issue is that false and fictitious cases are being brought before the police or judiciary with the intention of maligning, bringing avoidable and unnecessary disrepute or settling scores with an unrelenting public officer. This position needs to be remedied…”
PROPOSED PENALTY: Imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years and also a fine.
FAKE NEWS GUIDELINES, 2018
Narendra Modi govt: WITHDRAWN
“On receiving any complaints of… 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…
PROPOSED PENALTY: Accreditation suspended when complaint registered; if fake news confirmed by PCI/NBA, accreditation suspended for six months; for second offence, for a year; for third offence, permanently.