The Indian government has withdrawn a controversial set of guidelines fewer than 24 hours after it was issued by the Ministry Information and Broadcasting (Ministry of I and B) to combat fake news.
According to media reports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervened to cancel the order, which stated that the government would suspend the accreditation of journalists who “created” or “propagated” fake news.
The guidelines to regulate fake news issued on April 2 “stands withdrawn”, the ministry said on Tuesday in a statement.
It has become such an epidemic that it needs concerted media literacy via public broadcasting campaigns to make people aware of fake news
Sevanti Ninan, who runs media watchdog thehoot.org, dubbed the circular “foolish” and “outrageous”.
“Accredited journalists in India are accredited through their newspapers, and are hardly the people who put out fake news,” she said.
“This government equates news that may be true but makes the government look bad with fake news. See the Indian Express lead story today on some of its stories that were labelled fake news by a partisan website which government ministers patronise.”
Ninan said fake news can best be “fought by the media itself, by using technology to do fact checking”.
The guidelines caused outrage, with journalists and activists saying it was an attempt by the government to muzzle press freedom in the country.
Journalists and people on social media decried the move that came less than a year from the general elections.
Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta termed it “breathtaking assault on mainstream media”.
The ministry in its original order had said that complaints regarding instances of fake news will be referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) if it involved print media and to News Broadcasters Association (NBA) in case of electronic media.
PCI and NBA are regulatory bodies that govern the conduct of print and broadcast media respectively.
“While examining the requests seeking accreditation, the regulatory agencies will examine whether the Norms of Journalistic Conduct and Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards prescribed by the PCI and NBA respectively are adhered to by the journalists as part of their functioning,” the ministry said in its Monday’s statement.
The Indian Express newspaper said that Modi had asked the ministry to rescind its order and let PCI, an autonomous body, address the matter.
In her defence, Smriti Z Irani, the I and B minister, said the guidelines generated debate and that she “is more than happy to engage with journalist body or organisations wanting to give suggestions so that together we can fight the menace of ‘fake news’ and uphold ethical journalism”.
Fake news is a big problem globally as well as in India.
But critics have questioned the BJP’s commitment to fighting fake news, pointing to several party members’ defence of the recently arrested founder of PostCard News on charges including committing deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage sentiments as evidence of this.
When contacted by Al Jazeera, a BJP spokesman declined to comment on the story.
Fake-news-busting websites such as Altnews and Boom live have been trying to counter misinformation, but experts say more needs to be done.
“It has become such an epidemic that it needs concerted media literacy via public broadcasting campaigns to make people aware of fake news,” Ninan said.
The government’s attempt to regulate media seems to have backfired, partly because it targeted accredited journalists, leading to many fear that it was an attempt to control access of journalists critical of the government.
In the past four years, Modi has not held a single press conference and has only given interviews to media networks that run pro-government stories.
“Media freedom may not be under attack, per se, but certainly the PM and his ministers restrict access to the state-owned public broadcaster and to select media houses and individuals whom they approve of, when they give interviews,” Ninan from the thehoot.org said.