Modi stops ministry's move to punish fake-news reporters

Curbs on journalists' government access seen as attack on media freedom

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has intervened and spiked a controversial order aimed at restricting government access for journalists accused of reporting fake news.

The order was widely denounced as an attack on media freedom.

The controversy erupted after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) on Monday issued a circular saying that government accreditation for a journalist peddling fake news would be suspended or even cancelled.

Journalists with experience of five years and above qualify for accreditation which is required for access to government buildings and to cover events such as press conferences.

The ministry had warned that the accreditation could be withdrawn even pending an investigation of a journalist by the Press Council of India and the Indian Broadcasters Association (NBA).

The penalty was imposed on a graded scale, with six months' suspension for the first violation, up to a year for the second and permanent cancellation for the third.

The Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ms Smriti Irani, a popular television actress turned politician who defended the order on social networking site Twitter yesterday, said that her ministry would now reach out to journalists for suggestions on how to counter fake news.

"@MIB_India is more than happy to engage with journalist body or organisation/s wanting to give suggestions so that together we can fight the menace of 'fake news' and uphold ethical journalism. Interested journalists and/or organisations may feel free to meet me," she tweeted.

In its circular on Monday, the ministry referred to "increasing instances" of fake news but did not spell out what they constituted.

Fake news is becoming a major problem in India, which has more than 80 news channels in English, Hindi and other regional languages, and dozens of newspapers and news websites.

Rumours and fake video clips are rampant across social media sites and are often picked up by media organisations.

In February, for example, some English and Hindi television channels tweeted a fake video clip purportedly showing Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, chanting a Hindu prayer greeting at a ceremony organised by a Hindu group.

While there is agreement among most media outlets that fake news needs to be filtered, Monday's circular triggered widespread condemnation, with some critics noting that Mr Modi, who is seeking re-election next year, heads a government known to be ultra-sensitive to media criticism

"Make no mistake: This is a breathtaking assault on mainstream media," Mr Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief and chairman of ThePrint, a multimedia portal, tweeted.

The Indian Express newspaper, in a front-page report, described how 13 federal ministers, including Ms Irani, had, over the last two days, tweeted a link to a website which claims to have busted "four major fake news stories". It noted that the website had included two reports by The Indian Express.

Still, with no separate guidelines on fake news, some journalists and media owners also raised the need for introspection.

"'Fake news' is 'news' that's been created with conscious knowledge that it's not true... Editors Guild, NBA should define fake news," tweeted The Times of India's managing director Vineet Jain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Modi stops ministry's move to punish fake-news reporters'. Print Edition | Subscribe