Misinformation and its more malicious variant, disinformation, have been the bane of today’s unfettered communication system, especially social media where the necessary filters are rarely applied over the spread of news and views, many of which are based on false information deliberately or ignorantly placed. The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to constitute a fact-checking unit to deal with “misinformation and disinformation pertaining to the State government” emanating from “all media platforms”, sounds, on the face of it, a reactive step. This decision follows a similar move by the Karnataka government. But for the governments to deem themselves or units constituted by them as the adjudicator of what is false is a retrograde move as an interested party deciding upon what is factual or not is problematic. Tamil Nadu’s move must be seen along with the Centre’s notification of the IT Rules earlier this year, which amended the Information Technology Rules, 2021, and allowed the Ministry of Electronics and IT to appoint a similar fact-checking unit. Several parties including the Editors Guild of India, the Association of Indian Magazines and the political satirist Kunal Kamra had challenged the IT rule enabling the unit. During the hearing, the Bombay High Court had raised the issue of the lack of necessary safeguards that will allow fair criticism of the government. It had also remarked that even if the motives for the introduction of such a rule was laudable — to tackle false news — it could be done away with, if its effects were unconstitutional, that is, if it infringed upon freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
The verdict is set to be delivered on December 1, but the remarks indicate where courts stand on the constitution of a government “fact-checking unit” to adjudicate on reports and information relating to its functioning. The Editors Guild of India had urged Karnataka to specify the scope and powers of the fact-checking unit, besides suggesting that the menace of misinformation and fake news was best left to independent bodies and that “[a] monitoring network should follow principles of natural justice including giving prior notice, right to appeal and judicial oversight”. States have their information and publicity departments that can clarify on news related to them and there are independent fact-checkers who tackle misinformation on social media. It would have made express sense for such units to be set up with the involvement of journalists and other stakeholders, but that has also not been the case with the Tamil Nadu government’s decision.