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Comment: MIB's botched whip on fake news akin to testing waters

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With the scourge of fake news rampant globally, any attempt to counter it is always a welcome move. And just for that India’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani cannot be faulted even if such a view is radical and would be open to severe criticism-as it was in India over the last few days with a large section of civil society coming down like a ton of bricks on the minister’s assertions on guidelines for TV and print media journalists that proposed punitive penalties for breaching some undefined norms.

However, the wording of the press statement put out by the government’s PR arm, Press Information Bureau, on behalf of MIB is what raises questions.

First, the government statements were aimed at “regulating” fake news and not look at avenues to arrest their spread or, as the homoeopathy strand of medicine would do, go to the root cause of the ailment. The intent becomes clear: the aim was not really to find a solution to fake news in the true sense.

Second, the timing of the guidelines, which were aimed at handing out harsh penalties to government accredited journalists from the print and electronic media, rings some more alarm bells. Though the present BJP-led government’s official five-year tenure ends mid-2019, it is widely expected that the general elections would be held before the tenure comes to an end officially—as is mostly done, but then this government has been known to break many times tested norms-if not as early as late 2018.

On both these counts, the honourable MIB minister was found wanting and her move was widely dubbed as nothing but an initiative to gag the news media critical of the present government. That the prime minister himself had to step in to order a rollback of the MIB diktat a day later, as officially being stated, is a story in itself.

Let’s forget for once what some of the journalistic organisations had to say in criticism of the MIB move to cancel accreditation of journalists found peddling fake news, though the definition of fake news was not elaborated, nor was the fact as to why just on a complaint from practically anybody a journalist, whose antecedents are verified by the government annually for security reasons, will be put in the hall of shame even if it’s for varied period of time.

Two organisations, the Press Council of India (PCI) and the News Broadcasters Association of India (NBA), made responsible to decide whether the complaint on fake news was genuine or not (according to the government statement) have not much legal standing or bandwidth to do so. While the PCI is a (toothless) watchdog for the print medium, the NBA’s self-regulatory mechanism for member-TV news channels hasn’t always worked.

Now let’s try analysing what could have prompted such a move by MIB-a move that was unveiled seemingly without taking into confidence the PM and his office.

It’s a known fact in India, in sharp contrast to other global markets, that a TV news channel here is started, more often than not, to flaunt one’s status symbol and increase the owner’s powers (both politically and financially) rather than being a pure journalistic means. That is not saying there are no exceptions to the rule and India has some very fine and professional news channels, which daily go through the grind of living up to the high standards of journalism. But, what explains the fact that 25-30 per cent of the total 900-odd permitted TV channels in India would fall in the news and current affairs genre? And they come in all shapes, sizes and languages. If the big guns of the news and current affairs genre mostly have scarlet bottom lines, it goes without saying that the smaller news channels are barely churning out revenue. No other country in the world has so many TV news channels.

In a year that will lead to general elections-a period after the elections are announced is when cacophony on TV news channels start peaking-clamping down on news outlets cannot be considered a bad strategy; especially when one is not used to hear criticism. Artificial barriers become natural armours. Putting on hold future permission to TV channels by the MIB till a new policy on uplink/downlink is put in place after regulator TRAI’s recommendations is one such clampdown. But then trying to gag the news media as a whole need to be thought out and well orchestrated instead of merely announcing one evening some guidelines under the garb of attempting to regulate fake news.

And why regulate fake news? Does that mean some fake news could have been allowed, while filtering out the more damaging ones? More importantly, why target those journalists for fake news who are accredited by the government? Did that mean that non-accredited journalists, which are in huge numbers, would have been allowed to dabble in fake news? Considering most news websites and many online ventures that pretend to deal in news but hand out mostly tainted views are not accredited with the government, either at the federal or State level, the question arises whether they would have been allowed to peddle fake news? In India, fake news is more rampant on social media platforms and little known online ventures than in mainstream media.

But Ms. Irani and her set of advisors again cannot be faulted to try regulating the news media. From the days of the infamous Emergency unleashed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-70s to her son Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s and few other successive governments of post-independent, India has tried to muzzle at some time or other the not-so-perfect-yet-a-vibrant media of the country. Not only such moves have backfired, including the dark days of the Emergency, but in many cases the then governments had to beat a retreat in the face of stiff opposition to any such move. So much so, folklore in the complex realm of Indian politics says that all governments that tried to regulate media in any form bit the dust and were booted out of power.

In the mid to late 1990s, just before the first NDA government came to power under Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, the then government had tried to bring in Parliament a Broadcasting Bill, envisaging wide-ranging limits to media businesses, including cross-media restrictions of ownerships. That government didn’t remain in power to see through the proposed legislation. However, that didn’t stop other governments, including the Congress-led coalitions that ruled for 10 years after 2004, to attempt limiting media independence. Manish Tiwari, a former MIB minister in 2013, had famously proposed a common examination for journalists as the minister thought media personnel were not qualified enough.

Cut to 2018. The storm may have blown over for the time being, but for the media to sit back and relax could be dangerous. Simply because the present government is unlike any those in the past. To take satisfaction from an explanation that the PM was totally unaware of one of his minister’s moves to gag the media could be a bad strategy for the media industry. The government was just testing the waters.

Also Read :

PMO directs MIB to withdraw guidelines on fake news

MIB nod to TV channels on hold till TRAI uplink, downlink suggestions

Smriti Irani tweets industry body advisory urging restraint by TV news channels

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