On April 24, Neeraj Shivhare, a journalist based in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada, published a report of a homemaker selling off household items to pay for her family’s daily needs during lockdown. Two days later, he was served a notice by the sub-divisional magistrate over this “misleading” report.
The notice has asked Shivhare to explain why an FIR should not be registered against him.
Dantewada collector Topeshwar Verma said the report states that the family had received no help from the government, which he says is not true.
But Shivhare, who stood by his report, said, “After I published the story, with her comment on record, other journalists also took her statement. She has constantly said she got no help and had to sell household items.”
Verma said: “The reporter should have checked with us. We have provided mandatory ration to the woman in question, along with 4 kg rice extra, twice. We are helping everyone in need. She might have sold off her fridge, but it wasn’t because she didn’t get help.”
Verma said the notice was sent “after investigating the report on ground”.
The notice states, “The article…is without complete and correct information and is misleading. Under the current pandemic, the story causes fear amongst people and portrays the state in a bad light.”
Shivhare said he did not submit anything to officials because “I believe they are wrong and my story stands true”.
While the state government has a dedicated “fake news committee”, chaired by Raipur range I-G Anand Chhabra and two journalists among other members, the Dantewada district administration is itself investigating this case.
The official order to form the committee was issued by the state General Administrative Department (GAD) on March 6. “The idea was to ensure that baseless and fraudulent news is not published. The GAD issued the order after consultation with the Directorate of Public Relations,” Additional Chief Secretary Subrat Sahu said.
While there is no clarity on the number of members in the committee, or when it was formed, Taran Prakash Sinha, commissioner of Public Relations, confirmed that the two journalists were “appointed by the state government”. He said, “There are five members in the committee and they investigate fake news.”
One committee member, Hindi journalist Aavesh Tiwari, said he was appointed a couple of months after the government was formed. “The first meeting of the committee was held in February 2019, and then one in March this year,” he said.
Raipur Superintendent of Police Aarif Shaikh, also a committee member, said there are seven members. “We have a WhatsApp group on which several articles are shared. The articles are checked by the police and journalists using their sources. Once we find the facts reported are wrong, we circulate the story with a fake news tag,” he said.
Shaikh said more than 20 reports have been declared fake in the last two months.
According to an official order, the committee comprises four members: an SP; joint secretary, DPR; a district government lawyer; and CEO of Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society, a state agency.
The committee also includes the Raipur I-G and two journalists, according to other members.
While officials say the committee is appointed to check fake news, BJP leaders claim it is intended to hurt media freedom. BJP leader Sanjay Shrivastava said, “The government is trying to influence information that comes into the press. The committee was formed immediately after the I-T (income tax) raids on several government officials, which was covered by various news media outlets. This is a mala fide action intended to hurt the freedom of expression,” said
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