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The I&B Ministry’s Fake News Circular is Dead. Here’s Why We Should Still Worry.

Something is rotten in the state of India.

However bad the times may seem, my favourite Hamlet quote can never quite be “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” It has to be instead, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

So it was with the Information and Broadcast Ministry’s bizarre circular threatening to suspend or cancel journalists’ accreditation on account of them “creating” and/or “propagating” fake news. So too it was with the Government’s decision to then withdraw this circular.

But first, the madness. The sheer arbitrariness of the circular stands out in exactly what the I&B Minister has chosen to reiterate as its defence.

Why? For many who cover the news, the access afforded by accreditation is their bread and butter. More importantly, it is their channel for letting us, the public, know what’s going on- a prerequisite for a democracy. Why should the decision of whether or not a journalist’s accreditation is to be cancelled be handed over to the Press Council of India (PCI) and the National Broadcasters Association (NBA)? For some context, the PCI headed by Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad (it’s always headed by a former Supreme Court Judge; site down, here’s the Wikipedia link drawing information from it) and the NBA (headed by Rajat Sharma, who welcomes the Government’s decision to let the PCI and NBA decide all issues related to fake news) have their governing bodies full of, besides journalists, a sizeable (if not greater) number of non-journalists such as corporate officials, MPs and other members from fields such as education, science, law, literature and culture. On what basis did the I&B Ministry decide to grant them the authority to determine whether or not a journalist should be accredited?

More to the point, and this brings us to the method, does the I&B Ministry expect anything from these independent bodies in return? The circular says that the determination of whether a news item is fake or not is “expected to be completed within 15 days” by these regulating agencies. Should we go on to interpret the wording of the circular to assume that these bodies, so far independent, are now answerable in some way to the government?

Let’s revert to the madness. The circular slips in quickly in the end, that “while examining the requests for accreditation”, the regulatory agencies will examine whether the PCI’s ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ and the NBA’s ‘Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards’ have been adhered to by journalists. It insists, note, that this is “obligatory”. While these norms and this code may have many points worth considering, they also have sections relevant to ‘obscenity’, ‘public good taste’ and ‘national interest’ that may well be up for debate. By what reasoning, has the honourable ministry decided to sweepingly impose these norms and this code on all journalists?

The madness doesn’t stop there. The circular, now thankfully revoked, was outrageous not simply because of what was in it, but also because of what wasn’t. In a word, process. Or rather, due process. How would the committees within these bodies determining whether a news item is fake or not have been constituted? Would their members be journalists or non-journalists? How would fake news be defined? Would intentional fake news to be distinguished from inaccurate reporting (this statement from the PCI Chairman, published on Twitter by Barkha Dutt suggests otherwise)? If so, how would intent be established? Would the procedure for the determination of fake news give the journalist in question a right to be heard? How would this be ensured? The circular made no mention of such complexities, leaving the fine print to either discretion or the reader’s imagination.

Here is what the imagination foretells. With no process being guaranteed and journalists being left wide open to a slew of complaints filed against them by malicious or vested interests, such a directive would have had a chilling effect on the media. As it is, journalists today have to contend with corporate pressures, unfair lawsuits and the threat of physical harm. This directive would have added to the mix another layer of censorship: the fear of losing accreditation and the consequent impact on performance and livelihood.

And so, let’s return to the method once more. Truth be told, though the circular was withdrawn, it should stand for something. And, that something is not simply ‘fake news’. Everyone hates fake news and while the recent willingness of union ministers to tweet is commendable (its connection to Exam Warriors notwithstanding), the existence of other fake news identifiers, such as Alt News shows us that a vast chunk of fake news today is actually pro-government and anti-opposition. With this reality in view, how are we to be assured, without a guarantor of due process, that – with around a year left for national elections – the government will crack down equally on fake news that benefits the ruling party and not use ‘fake news’ instead as a bogeyman with which to stifle dissent?

So no. Rather than ‘fake news’, what this circular should stand for instead is the bile this government has displayed, ever since it has come to power, against what it reductively terms ‘liberal media’. It’s hardly a coincidence that the terms ‘presstitute’ and ‘newstrader’, being popularized by none other than the Prime Minister and his minister, were never before in vogue as they are now.

Also, this directive should stand for something that was underway and was stalled for outcry. And for something that may not be stalled next time.

For this outcry was rooted in the fact that sections of the Indian mainstream media have, for a while now, been perceived to exist in a state that may most charitably be described in the words, LK Advani used for the press during the emergency: they are perceived to be crawling when being asked to bend. This is perception, of course, and perception, while spawning an atmosphere of fear, is difficult to verify and pin down. It spreads through murmurs of phone calls made to corporates, gossip exchanged over journalists who quit and casual queries over why certain stories are dropped or relegated to ‘also ran’, whereas others are given prime play. What a directive like this does – with the government declaring openly its intentions of tightening its screws on the media without clarifying how – is transform such a perception into a tangible thing.

But outcry gets tiring. Will the voices of journalists who outraged against this circular come together with the same strength, were it to re-appear tomorrow or day after? What if it were to re-appear in another avatar? Will it slip us by?

A worrying exchange from this episode, that appears to have been overlooked, is a response by the I&B Minister to a tweet from journalist Akhilesh Sharma.

So there was method in’t. And there will be always. The question is what’s next?

Rishi Majumder is a freelance writer.

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