INDIA’S prime minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday (3) reversed an order to punish journalists reporting “fake news”, after an outcry over a perceived government crackdown on the press.
The media sanctions, issued late on Monday (2), stated that the government would withdraw the official accreditation of any journalist responsible for repeated reporting of “fake news”.
India is the latest government to act against what it calls “fake news”. Malaysia is passing a law allowing for up to six years in jail for publishing allegedly misleading information.
The government said it needed to curb the spread of misinformation in the media. But Modi’s office rescinded the directive hours later amid allegations that India’s vibrant press was being muzzled.
“PIB (Press Information Bureau) press release titled Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists amended to regulate Fake News issued on 02 April 2018 stands withdrawn,” the information and broadcasting ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
Under the now withdrawn guidelines, a first offence would have led to a six-month suspension of government accreditation. A second case would attract a year’s suspension followed by a permanent withdrawal for a third offence.
About 2,000 journalists with leading Indian media have a PIB card from the ministry, which eases access to government departments and ministries.
The Indian Express newspaper in a front-page headline on Tuesday said, “In the name of fake news, govt frames rules to blacklist journalists.”
“Move comes in election year,” it added.
Several journalists and activists, while acknowledging the problem of fake news, criticised the government intervention.
“Accreditation is not essential to the practice of free journalism, but this debate is Trumpian in its othering of the media as enemy,” Barkha Dutt, a veteran journalist and editor of the Mojo digital news platform, said. “I don’t deny that fake news is a hugely valid concern and the media should take steps to weed it out.”
She added that self-regulating industry bodies, not the government, should decide penalties.
Last Friday (30), Indian police arrested the editor of a website for publishing a fake report that Muslims had attacked a monk from the Jain faith, officials said.
Mahesh Vikram Hegde was arrested in southern Karnataka state last Thursday (29) on charges of spreading fake and communally sensitive news on his right-wing website, police said.
Hegde’s online Postcard news reported on March 18 that Jain monk Upadhyaya Mayank Sagarji was attacked by Muslims. Police said Sagarji was actually injured in a road accident.
“We have arrested Hegde for posting a fake news… alleging that a Jain monk was attacked by Muslims,” Bangalore joint commissioner of police N Satish Kumar said.
The cyber crime police “have registered a case against the portal and its owner Hegde for the false news”, Kumar added.