The Information and Broadcasting Ministry withdrew its order, issued late on Monday, under which accreditation of any journalist found guilty of disseminating “fake news” could be cancelled.
This came on directions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after outrage from the media and the Opposition.
“The PM has directed that the press release regarding the fake news be withdrawn and the matter be addressed only by the Press Council of India,” a senior official in the PMO said.
Mr. Modi was also of the view that the government should not interfere in the matter, the official added. Following the message from the PMO, the Ministry said in a statement that the guidelines “to regulate fake news...stands withdrawn.”
Announcing the norms on Monday night, the Ministry, headed by Smriti Irani, said accreditation of a journalist could be cancelled if the news reported by him/her was found to be “fake.”
The notification, which did not define the phrase “fake news,” said complaints would be referred to the Press Council of India if they pertained to the print media and to the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) if they related to the electronic media. The regulatory agencies would have 15 days to dispose off a complaint. During the period of probe, the journalist’s accreditation would be suspended, the note said.
The note further said that on first violation, the accreditation would be suspended for six months, on the second violation for a year and on the third violation, it would be cancelled permanently.
Responding to the notification, Press Club of India president Gautam Lahiri said: “The government has no mandate to control the press. The media were also worried about growing incidents of fake news but the Press Council is the right platform to deal with complaints of any fake news.” He was speaking at an emergency meeting of the Press Club of India following the order.
Govt. in panic: Rahul
Congress president Rahul Gandhi said the U-turn by the government was a sign of “panic” setting in. “Sensing mounting anger on the ‘fake news’ notification, the PM orders a U-turn on his own order. One can clearly see a loss of control and panic setting in now,” he tweeted.
Speaking at a press conference, Congress leader Anand Sharma said the Prime Minister was the biggest beneficiary of fake news. “They know more about fake news than perhaps any leader in the world, than any government in the world. The Committee which they had made, included people who were known, I am sorry to say, with due respect, to be manufacturing news, not giving news to the people. So, you set up a committee, a so-called committee, to check fake news by including those who happily manufacture fake news to help the Prime Minister, to help the BJP government,” he said.
Mr. Sharma said it was not believable that the decision was taken without consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office. “We know no decision can be taken by any Minister, any Ministry — no paper can be moved and no orders can be issued — without the PMO,” he added.
Shades of Emergency
Likening the order to the curbs on the media during the Emergency, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury tweeted: “We fought for Press freedom during the Emergency, then against the Defamation Bill. We condemn this duplicitous move of Modi government where in the garb of Fake News, it will attack all the news it finds uncomfortable. We stand for, and are committed to a free and independent press.”
Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee protested the order. “The PIB circular on Fake News control is a brazen attempt to curb press freedom, a sure sign that the government has lost its way. We demand the immediate withdrawal of such a draconian move. And what about fake news spread by a political party on a regular basis?” Ms. Banerjee said.