A press release by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry led by Smriti Irani issuing the amended guidelines for the news media created a most required uproar across the nation since Monday evening and has compelled PM Modi to surrender and withdraw the government order that sought to punish journalists for fake news.
The much debated press release, which is the genesis of the recent countrywide anger, stated that with the new Ministry guidelines, if a “fake news” complaint is confirmed, the accreditation of a journalist could be withdrawn for limited period (six months to two years) or cancelled permanently if the scribe is found generating or propagating fake news. The penalty will depend on the frequency of violation. The circular further referred to an increase in “instances of fake news across various mediums, including print and electronic media.” The ministry also directed that Press Council of India (PCI) and News Broadcasters Association (NBA), the two regulatory bodies for print and television media respectively, will examine whether the `Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ and `Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards’ prescribed by the PCI and NBA respectively are adhered to by the journalists and will determine whether the news is fake or not.
Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Dr Pravin Togadia expressed, “This is an unannounced emergency and I totally oppose any kind of dictatorship. Media is the fourth pillar of the democracy; hence, the attempt to shut the voice of media seems terrifying. The government is trying to silence the citizen-driven perspective raised by the media and journalists. BJP, who wasn’t in power since 52 years, used media’s voice for their benefit, but now being in power, they want to restrict them.”
Therefore, a bundle of questions become apparent — what all would be the parameter to decide fake news and who can be the maestro in that scrutiny? Regarding PCI and NBA being the regulatory bodies, will I&B Ministry guarantee their impartiality? Is the ruling party under pressure due to fading Modi-wave? Do they assure that stories that highlight the flaws of governance and the hardships of citizens that point finger at the ruling party will safely reach to the public notice? The Smriti Irani’s team failed to give clarity and the media outcry pushed the Prime Minister to surrender!
Unmesh Gujarati, the Resident Editor of Dainik Dabang Dunia termed it as, “No option was left for BJP than withdrawing the controversial decision. Already, the ruling party had shut many voices against them and with the recent decision they would’ve made it more severe. Though the order is cancelled, none can deny that an unofficial pressure is always there on the news media.
The soap opera star turned politician and Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani took to Twitter and expressed, “@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’ & uphold ethical journalism. Interested journalists and/or organisations may feel free to meet me at @MIB_India.”
Such an unprecedented decision by the Modi govt just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election has drawn widespread criticism from journalists and opposition parties. The move was condemned as a BJP government’s attempt to shut news media’s power of speech! However, it was termed as a ‘victory of democracy, media’ after the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on Tuesday ordered its withdrawal within its 24 hours and directed that the matter should only be addressed in Press Council of India.
Dhaval Mehta, Correspondent at Free Press Journal stated, “Fake news should be condemned and there is no place for fake news in media. However, the government cannot regulate the media and they must give them freedom. PCI and NBA can be biased; hence, it’s not the right of government to decide whether the story is fake! Smriti Irani’s intention was correct but her method of implementation was wrong. Modi has done the right thing by withdrawing the order and this move by him acts as a damage control.”
While Indians take pride to be the citizens of the world’s largest democracy, our media performs under an upsetting and risky enclose. Killing journalists, attacks on them and vandalising their equipment have become an every day affair in the present India. In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index India slipped at rank 136th among 180 countries; it was 133 in its previous year.
On the condition of anonymity, a Malad resident said, “Government should crack down fake news and must take action against it; but the scrutiny should be unbiased. Journalist should get their freedom of speech and use it to express the right information.”
Not all end here; since sometime, many cabinet ministers are also actively promoting a website, www.thetruepicture.in that calls busting fake media reports as its mission. They claim to have found a section of media trying to show Modi-government in “bad light” and “defend and help Rahul Gandhi and the Congress safeguard their image.”
PMO’s correct time declaration to pull back the Ministry order has saved the face of BJP from getting a slap from the democracy’s fourth pillar, but this episode must act as a warning to restrain them from attacking the journalists’ freedom of speech.