Fake news, the neologism for lies, has always existed. For centuries, smears have been circulated, documents forged, and rumours spread to undermine rivals. Ambitious and alarmed governments like to seize the initiative and tame them, lest they get devoured. So they describe their desire for survival in altruistic terms.
The Union ministry of information and broadcasting announced new rules for accrediting reporters, which seemed to have been prepared without much thought, and were withdrawn without offering any explanation. The withdrawal doesn’t mean the government is defeated and the media shouldn’t think it has won. The threat has not disappeared.
A withdrawn circular can resurface through legislative or regulatory means. To build public opinion against print and broadcast journalism, you have to show them to be irresponsible disseminators of fake news. The sudden eruption of ministerial tweets complaining about fake news just as the guidelines were issued was cynically predictable: only the naïve would think it was spontaneous.
To be sure, the ubiquity of internet-based messaging services has made simultaneous, mass-scale dissemination of information easier, reaching wider audiences more quickly than in the past. It makes the job of anyone who wants to set the record straight much harder.
But the guidelines would not have controlled the lies; they sought to control the media. The guidelines rightly placed the burden of weeding out the spread of lies on the Press Council of India (PCI) and the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). But the government prescribed terms such as suspending the accreditation of a reporter against whom a complaint was registered during the 15 days in which the complaint had to be evaluated.
But are 15 days enough to evaluate each complaint? As autonomous institutions, shouldn’t the PCI and NBA decide that, or whether accreditation should be suspended during that period? As for the autonomy, the Editors’ Guild of India has expressed concerns about the way the PCI is constituted.
Also Read: Fake News: The dangers of leashing the free press in India
Besides, as others have noted, the guidelines only apply to accredited journalists, and only of the print and broadcast media, leaving out the many who aren’t accredited, or who work freelance, or are employed by web-based portals (which are not part of the accreditation process.)
Not that any of this would make the non-accredited reporters freer. India’s strong laws against freedom of speech—in particular, provisions of the Indian Penal Code (sections 153A and 295A, which deal with offending religion, promoting disharmony or feelings of ill-will and hatred) apply to journalists, accredited and non-accredited, as well as everyone else. Besides, India retains criminal penalties for defamation. What, then, would be the point of the guidelines?
Consider accreditation as a way to license journalists. Sinister though it sounds, the game-plan is simple: First, build a chorus of opinion against fake news, then demonstrate the inability of courts or the PCI/NBA to deal with the problem. Then get politicians to criticize the media’s failure to self-regulate; respond to calls for regulation from parties claiming to be aggrieved. Now introduce regulation, but couch it in positive terms—to uphold the truth, to fight lies, to protect reputations.
Once you create the idea that an accredited reporter is the genuine article, it becomes a procedural matter to get state bodies to provide information or grant interviews only to accredited reporters. The private sector may then follow suit. Accredited reporters are credible, the government will say. And if they spread fake news, they will lose accreditation, which means access. Newspapers can then be required to, or may choose to, hire only accredited journalists as writers, editors, or columnists. The accreditation card as the Aadhaar-equivalent for a journalist—you might still be able to operate without it, but it would make life pretty difficult.
In the 1980s, the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco, tried regulating journalists as part of its “new world information order". Foreign correspondents on dangerous assignments would get accreditation ostensibly for their protection, but this also made it easier for states to monitor them. Journalists opposed it; the US, UK, and a few other nations withdrew from Unesco, and the system was dropped.
There is a deeper question: Are the media creating fake news or reporting it? Anyone can play the game, and sometimes governments are more adept at it: When a minister can claim a degree from a foreign university, another minister can assert that the late scientist Stephen Hawking had said the Vedas were superior to Albert Einstein, and ruling party leaders warn of a plot including retired Pakistani and Indian officials to destabilize the present government, what is the media to do? Report these tall tales? And would they be guilty of disseminating fake news if they quote the ministers’ outlandish remarks?
Interestingly, several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders were outraged by the arrest of Mahesh Vikram Hegde, co-founder of the web-based publication Postcard News, in Karnataka, over a sensationalist report which the authorities believed would have caused unrest. The site has published unverified claims and some of its reports have inflammatory language. But Hegde’s arrest has given him an undeserved halo of martyrdom. The right way to challenge Hegde is in the marketplace of ideas, with facts and arguments. That may not seem easy, but it is the most sensible way.
The fight against lies will be long, but it can be won with facts. In this fight, no government will be the media’s ally. And the fight has just begun.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi