Interested party: On facts, checks and the Press Information Bureau

The Press Information Bureau might be good at checking facts, but it cannot be the sole arbiter of truth 

January 20, 2023 12:20 am | Updated 01:35 pm IST

A proposal by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology that seeks to force social media platforms to take down content “fact-checked” by the Government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) as false needs to be opposed without even a second look. The proposed amendment to the IT Rules opens the door for the PIB or any other agency “authorised by the central government for fact checking” for the purpose of such takedowns. This is problematic at many levels, with deep implications for free speech and information. At the most basic level, the question to be asked is how a wing of the “nodal agency of the Government of India”, whose job is “to disseminate information to the print and electronic media on government policies, programmes, initiatives and achievements”, could be the deciding authority on what is factual and what is not. The disturbing absurdity of an interested party also playing the judge cannot be missed. It is a really nasty world of disinformation out there but one would have to be delusional to think that governments do not have an axe to grind. If the proposal is implemented, the government can play the super censor at will.

While this proposal signals a new low in the administration’s thinking on matters of regulating news and information, things were not rosy prior to this either. The government in recent years has given enough indications that it wants to control the news sphere. The reworked IT Rules in early 2021 are an example of this. A similar mindset was reflected in the provisions of the data privacy Bill that gave government agencies a free pass. Defending the government and its institutions in the public sphere by putting out data or statements is very much within the PIB’s ambit and logically defensible; but fact-checking is a very different thing. This is not to say that the PIB’s fact check unit has not debunked rumours circulating on various social media platforms. It has, but it has done so as the agency of the government. Making its “fact-checks” binding on news disseminating platforms is something else. With this, the government will have a tool with which to easily throttle voices opposing it. Indeed, it will be the sole arbiter of truth. The Editors Guild of India has rightly criticised the proposal by pointing out that “determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press”. Fake news has to be dealt with in an appropriate manner, but the proposal in question will only make the task harder.

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To read this editorial in Hindi, click here.

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