Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 3 ordered the withdrawal of a day-old move to punish journalists guilty of manufacturing “fake news”.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a statement on April 2 proposing to strip journalists circulating “fake news” of their government accreditation, an important identity card needed to report official events and have access to key ministries and offices.
Indian journalists criticised the move, which they saw as another attempt to curb the freedom of press ahead of the crucial 2019 general elections.
India has slipped several notches on the freedom of press index, with those in power openly calling journalists “news traders” or “presstitutes”. In 2017 alone, two journalists were killed, there was a raid on a recognised media house and a defamation case slapped on a prominent digital platform known for its critical reporting on the government.
In its latest report, Reporters Without Borders, which listed India as slipping three places to 136th in World Press Freedom Index, highlighted concerns that Hindu nationalists were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.
Following Modi’s directive, Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani tweeted that the matter of fake news should be within the purview of the Press Council of India. Barely 24 hours earlier, she had announced in a statement that the government would cancel the accreditation of journalists who peddled “fake news”.
“PIB (Press Information Bureau) Accreditation Guidelines asking Press Council of India & News Broadcasters Association to define & act against ‘fake news’ have generated debate. Several journalists & organisations have reached out giving positive suggestions regarding the same,” Irani tweeted.
The Indian Express cited sources as saying that the Prime Minister’s Office was “not consulted” and was unaware of Irani’s directive until it became public. Many see this as a snub for Irani.
Many pointed out the measures outlined by Irani gave virtually no scope to journalists to defend themselves against allegations of peddling fake news.
Veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta opposed the muzzling of the media in a tweet, “Make no mistake: this is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media. It’s a moment like Rajiv Gandhi’s anti-defamation bill. All media shd bury their differences and resist this.”
The Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Association and the Federation of Press Clubs of India issued statements welcoming the withdrawal of the order. “There is ample scope for introspection and reform of journalistic practices; yet, a government fiat restraining the fourth pillar of our democracy is not the solution,” it said.