The Narendra Modi government’s attempt to regulate the press was as brief as it was ill-conceived. On Tuesday, less than a day after the Union ministry of information and broadcasting put out a statement amending the guidelines for journalists’ accreditation, it was rolled back at the prime minister’s direction. This is to the good. Combating “fake news" is a popular cause these days, and with good reason. But heavy-handed government intervention that threatens to suspend or cancel journalists’ accreditation for ill-defined offences—in the crucial run-up to an election year, at that—is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

The abortive attempt was problematic in obvious ways. For one, it offered no definition of what fake news is. For another, it violated the basic norms of justice by mandating that a journalist’s accreditation be suspended as soon as an accusation is made. The larger issue it raised, however, was more important: what ought to be the relationship between the government and the media? This is a question that has cropped up repeatedly over the years.

The argument for a press free of government intervention is well-worn and strong. Free speech is the font of all other rights in a democratic state. A free press is the acme of free speech and its guardian. This creates a natural tension with the government, whether at the centre or in the states. As E.S. Venkataramiah, later to be chief justice of India, put it in his Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, 1984 ruling, “The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest…. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities."

The Union government’s response to this tension has been decidedly mixed over the decades. It has been statesmanlike on occasion; Jawaharlal Nehru famously encouraged criticism and dissent in the press. It has been far less so on others. Witness Indira Gandhi’s Emergency or Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous attempt to push through the Defamation Bill in 1988. More everyday attempts to undercut the freedom of press abound, enabled by laws that don’t do enough to protect it. While Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression is read to include freedom of press, there is no specific mention of the latter as in, say, the US constitution—and the numerous ill-defined caveats in the clause don’t help. The criminalization of defamation under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code is particularly damaging. For instance, it enabled J. Jayalalithaa to file 213 defamation cases against rivals and media outlets for allegedly derogatory remarks. The lack of legislation to protect sources in a court of law, meanwhile, makes investigative journalism that takes on the political and economic elite that much more difficult.

Despite these dynamics, the perverse argument that governments are victims and the media the unchecked bully that wields power over them has gained ground in the past few years—and not just in India. It would be a mistake to ignore all the reasons for this argument. Part of it stems from the rise of populist politicians and parties that are able to portray themselves as outsiders pitted against an establishment that includes the traditional media. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a good example of this. Part of it is the chaos of new media’s frontiers and its intersection with social networks. Fake news is far from a new phenomenon, as we have argued before. But the velocity social networks give it, and the difficulty of fixing accountability, make it a particularly cussed problem.

Some governments are attempting to address this. French President Emmanuel Macron is championing new legislation that will crack down on fake news during election campaigns. The European Union has set up the EUvsDisinfo effort to combat fake news. Such a direct government role has plenty of critics, for good reason. EUvsDisinfo’s false tagging of news from three Dutch media sites as fake news—the sites are now suing—shows how easy it is for government intervention to go wrong.

Debates about ethics in journalism, fake news and the transformation of the media landscape are necessary. Bodies like the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association are good venues for it. So is engagement with the wider public on these issues. The media must guard against the conceit that its particular role in a democratic state elevates it above criticism or public opinion. Media organizations—whether traditional or digital—must also work on putting in place more rigorous newsroom rules. In an era of instant news, compromising rigour in sourcing and verifying stories for the sake of speed is all too easy. This has eroded media credibility; it has only itself to blame.

However, the government directing and setting the terms of these debates, as it attempted to do with the amended guidelines, is a dangerous disruption of democratic checks and balances. It cannot be seen as an act of good faith.

Is the media doing enough to check fake news? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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