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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Breaking Down News: Beyond the Headlines

Fake news, empty threats and what a summary suspension of a journalist’s accreditation could mean

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: April 7, 2018 12:36:50 am
fake news An attempt to trammel the media before a significant general election is not going to improve the ruling party’s prospects.

Governments — even those vaccinated against policy paralysis — can be relied upon to be late. And so Smriti Irani’s extraordinary threat to suspend the accreditation of journalists on the mere accusation of reporting fake news appeared on April 2. Being only 24 hours too late for All Fools’ Day casts the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in a very poor light. Government needs to be much more inefficient than this, if it is to remain credible.

But once the ploy had shambled into motion, it was classical sarkari coercion. The ministry proposed to suspend accreditation for 15 days, pending investigation — before due process was even initiated, let alone completed. But what exactly is this process? Fake news implies wilful malice. In its absence, it is merely erroneous news, and newsrooms have mechanisms to put that right. In how many cases can wilful malice be established or discounted beyond doubt? The ministry’s formulation would have disputes running forever — and accreditations suspended for a corresponding period.

The joke was on the ministry, which may not have anticipated that an attack, during the run-up to a general election, would unite the normally competitive media fraternity like Super Glue. But while the spotlight was on Irani’s swift retreat and the intervention of the prime minister, it was also interesting to see what the lay reader knows about accreditation: nothing.

The learned on Twitter seemed to believe that PIB accreditation provides access to government events and government-sponsored samosas. They have no idea that numerous journalists get their work done without accreditation, and don’t care about samosas. But seriously, the summary suspension of accreditation would temporarily impair news flows. And an attempt to trammel the media before a significant general election is not going to improve the ruling party’s prospects. But nothing loth, the ministry now proposes to police online news. More humour can be expected from April.

When the All Fools’ Day jokes in the media aren’t very memorable — they really weren’t this year — you know that the world is burdened with too much reality. But at such times, the scientific press steps up to the crease. This year, CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which detected the Higgs boson, took top honours with a report about “hard-boiled scientists” discovering the elusive “Humpty Dumpty particle”, which is so named because it decays into two photons, which can never be put back together again. Its formal name is ?gg. ‘?’ is the classical Greek lower-case ‘e’, making ?gg just an egg.

The report is peppered with giveaway, meaningless phrases like “particle of pure force”, which have no place in a scientific document, and plain fun like, “At one point we were treading on eggshells to prevent other collaborations from poaching our data.” This is not the first time that CERN has gone where no quantum mechanic has ever gone before. On April 1, 2015, when the world’s eyes were on them because they were restarting the LHC, CERN reported “the first unequivocal evidence for the Force.” A “diminutive green spokesman” apparently said: “Very impressive, this result is.”

Incidentally, Smriti Irani’s opposite number in Islamabad appears to have a refreshingly clear understanding of what can be suspended and how it must be done. Over the last few days, there have been reports of Geo News being taken off the air in several parts of Pakistan. Responding to the Daily Times, State Minister for Information and Broadcasting Marrium Aurangzeb wanted to know why the government would block a channel, unless it violated the law of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, an autonomous body. And even that would require due process.

The most intriguing aspect about this partial blackout of one of Pakistan’s most-watched TV news channels is that no one in government seems to know what’s going on. This is the channel which was shut down by brute force after a lethal attack on the prominent journalist Hamid Mir, and the owner was harassed by a blasphemy charge, and was slapped with hundreds of FIRs. The channel blamed Inter-Services Intelligence for this concerted attack on the press. With that history, any disappearing act by Geo is a serious matter.

India Today TV has broken new ground by bringing Amit Malviya and Divya Spandana, the generals of the ruling party and the Congress in the social media arena, face to face for the first time. The lady carried the day effortlessly, accusing host Rahul Kanwal of bad posture, which kept him turned almost permanently towards Malviya, and there were cool, cutting remarks that Malviya simply could not fend off. Of course, he isn’t in the pink these days, having embarrassed the party by tweeting the dates of forthcoming state elections before the Election Commission declared them.

Now that he is a BJP MP and no longer an independent, Rajeev Chandrasekhar has severed links with Republic TV in the interest of its brand. But has his capital quit the channel along with him? This question inspires general curiosity, but remains unanswered.

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