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Narendra Modi

Hours after India announced it would punish journalists for ‘fake news’, PM Narendra Modi had second thoughts

U-turn came after India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced that reporters’ press credentials could be suspended simply for an accusation of spreading fake news

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 8:55pm

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reversed an order to punish journalists found guilty of reporting “fake news”, after an outcry over a perceived government crackdown on the press.

The media sanctions, issued late Monday, stated that the government would withdraw the official accreditation of any journalist responsible for repeated reporting of “fake news”.

The ministry did not define “fake news” but the government said it needed to curb the spread of misinformation in the media.

Co-opted by US President Donald Trump, the term has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in several countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

But Modi’s office rescinded India’s directive just hours later amid allegations his country’s vibrant press was being muzzled.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titled ‘Guidelines for Accreditation of Journalists amended to regulate Fake News’ issued on 02 April 2018 stands withdrawn,” the information and broadcasting ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

A senior official in Modi’s office said: “The prime minister has directed that the press statement regarding fake news be withdrawn and the matter be addressed in the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association.”

Media bodies welcomed the decision but cautioned the government against trying to control the media.

“The government has no mandate to control the press,” said Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India, adding that the media were also worried about growing incidents of “fake news”.

“The Press Council is the right platform to deal with complaints regarding any fake news.”

Under the withdrawn guidelines from the ministry, a first offence would have led to a six-month suspension of government accreditation.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 Press Information Bureau card from the information ministry, which eases access to government departments and ministries.

Trump: ‘You are fake news’

Several journalists and activists, while acknowledging the problem of fake news, criticised the government’s earlier intervention.

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.

Audrey Truschke, assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in the United States, called the sanctions “a shocking and unacceptable attack” on freedom of the press in India.

“It’s not about #fakenews. Rather, it’s about controlling a notably vibrant press that often sheds light where those in power would prefer darkness,” Truschke posted on Twitter.

“Accreditation is not essential to the practice of free journalism but to me this debate is Trumpian in its othering of the media as enemy,” Barkha Dutt, a veteran Indian 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 said, adding self-regulating industry bodies, not the government, should decide penalties.

India is the latest government to act against what it calls “fake news”.

The events in India followed Malaysia’s approval this week of a law prescribing jail terms of up to six years for spreading it.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

India slipped three places last year to rank 136 among 180 countries rated in the world press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The non-profit body said Hindu nationalists, on the rise since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.

Action by Asian governments to crack down on fake news

Malaysia has passed a law which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (US$123,000) and a maximum six years in jail for offenders who spread fake news inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen are affected. The law, which comes ahead of a general election, covers news outlets, digital publications and social media.

In Singapore, a parliamentary committee has been reviewing possible measures to prevent “deliberate online falsehoods”. An eight-day hearing – the longest in Singapore’s history – drew to a close on March 29. The committee will prepare a report on possible new legislation in May, after parliament’s midterm break, its chairman, Charles Chong, told the final session.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has “lost trust” in news site Rappler and barred it from covering his official events, his spokesman said in February. Duterte has called Rappler a fake news outlet, making no secret of his annoyance at its reporting, which has heavily scrutinised his polices and the accuracy of his statements. Additionally, anti-fake news legislation, which would impose fines and prison terms of up to 20 years for spreading false information, is under consideration in the Philippines.

Thailand already has a cyber-security law under which the spread of false information carries a jail sentence of up to seven years, and the military government strictly enforces lèse-majesté laws that shield the royal family from insult

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters