India ‘fake news’ blacklist prompts media outcryApril 3, 2018
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has outlined new rules to blacklist reporters who disseminate “fake news”, prompting an outcry from journalists who say the measure will stifle India’s independent media in a sensitive election year.
A statement from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting — led by former soap opera star turned politician Smriti Irani — on Monday said it was taking the steps after “noticing increasing instances of fake news in various mediums, including print and electronic media”.
In response, authorities will suspend the press accreditation — which is vital for government access — of any reporter who is accused of having “created or propagated the fake news”.
The accreditation will remain suspended until the complaint’s validity is determined by the Press Council of India — a body led by a retired Supreme Court judge and including several politicians from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party — and the News Broadcasters Association.
The government statement does not define what constitutes fake news, but analysts and senior journalists said it could be any news that depicts India, or Mr Modi’s government, in a poor light or deviates from the official narrative.
“This is a breathtaking assault on the mainstream media,” tweeted veteran newspaper editor Shekhar Gupta, who now runs The Print, a website. “All media should bury their differences and resist this.”
Sanjay Pugalia, a veteran Hindi television anchor who is now the editorial director of The Quint Hindi, said the new rules were “a direct threat to the so-called mainstream media during an election year. The ruling party is under pressure. This gives them a free hand to contain criticism.”
Echoing Thailand’s lese-majesty law, the notification implies any individual can file a complaint dubbing a story “fake news”, raising the possibility of action against journalists by those who may not care for them or their reporting.
If the “fake news” complaint is upheld, journalists’ accreditation will be suspended for six months for a first offence; two years for a second offence, and permanently for a third infraction.
“This will be used by the government to go after journalists they do not like,” Indrani Bagchi, diplomatic editor of The Times of India, said on Twitter.
Ms Irani defended the new rules on Twitter as a means of promoting “ethical journalism”. She also said the complaints about “fake news” would not be determined by government agencies, but by the PCI and the NBA.
While India touts itself as the world’s largest democracy, its media operates under heavy constraints. The most recent World Press Freedom Index — issued by the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders — ranked India 136 out of 180, down three spots from the previous year.
But Mr Modi’s government is not alone in citing concerns about “fake news” to justify attempts to muzzle the media. Last month, the Malaysian government introduced a bill to parliament that threatens publishers of “fake news” with up to 10 years in jail or a $120,000 fine.
Since coming to power in 2014, Mr Modi’s government made little secret of its disdain for the mainstream media, making efforts to bypass it with adroit use of alternative channels. The premier and his cabinet are regular Twitter users, and Mr Modi has his own app, which has been downloaded more than 5m times, and is also pre-installed on Reliance Jio’s low-cost phones.
The premier also has a monthly address to the nation, which typically culminates in appeals to all listeners to download his app.
In recent days, cabinet ministers on Twitter have also been actively promoting a website, www.thetruepicture.in, which says its mission is to “bust” fake media reports. It said it found “sections of the media have a tendency” to show the central government in a “bad light” and “defend and help Rahul Gandhi and the Congress safeguard their image”.